Day 13: I walk by faith and not by sight

The last two days have been very eventful, as you may have gathered from yesterday’s blog entry. It was posted by my friends Chris Wood and Jay Clark, two of my remote support team, who were excellent in both practical and emotional support last night. Thanks for your patience with my the sometimes erratic nature of my blog.

Many thanks for the messages of support, concern and encouragement I received after my day yesterday. It involved me getting lost, miss-timing various things, having problems with accommodation and walking off the edge of my own map. So, as you can imagine, it was by far the hardest day of the walk so far. And yet the day (or rather the evening) finished with some amazing hospitality and generosity. Most of this was provided by the staff and customers of a pub I entered when I desperately needed to charge my mobile phone at around 10.00pm in the evening. God leads us to help in unexpected places.

Today has also involved some heavy walking, as well as some poor navigating on my part and a lot of rain and wetness in the very beautiful, but very, very hilly countryside of south Buckinghamshire. Tonight, I’ve received really warm hospitality in Chesham from Baptist minister Colin Cartwright (one of the first people to contact me about the pilgrimage after I announced it in December), along with his family, his cat and his dog. There was an excellent turnout of people drawn from five local churches when I answered questions about my pilgrimage at Chesham Friends’ Meeting House this evening. The meeting generated some really good and helpful discussion. I also had some very interesting discussions with strangers on the way today.

Tomorrow, my friend Chris Campbell, who was harmed by my homophobia many years ago, will be joining me for a day’s walking as I head to Watford. I’m looking forward to it, and will let you know how it goes. Thanks again for your prayers and encouragement.

An update from Symon

Hello everyone,

After a long day’s walk and with some complications relating to the arrangements for his accommodation (during which he was beginning to contemplate a night under the stars!) Symon was unable to arrive at his chosen destination until after 11pm. Understandably therefore he is very tired and is unable to blog tonight. Symon is staying at a B&B in Thame a few miles from his intended destination of Haddenham and will continue to Chesham where we will be speaking tomorrow. Symon will resume blogging as soon as he has spent some time resting and will return with the full story of his dramatic late night search for an bed in rural Oxfordshire!

Thanks for your patience.

Day 11: Crumbs from the table

St Columba’s United Reformed Church in Oxford gave me an excellent welcome today. I joined in their lively and thought-provoking service this morning before speaking at the church this afternoon. St Columba’s was one of the first churches to contact me when I announced my intention to undertake this pilgrimage back in December. They have been consistently and actively supportive, as have First Sunday, an LGBT Christian group linked to St Columba’s.

People who turned up to the event this afternoon included both regulars at the church and people who had heard about it through other means. First Sunday had done a good job of publicising it online as well as handing out leaflets at Oxford Pride. There were questions on issues included the nature of the Bible, the meaning of marriage and the Jeffrey John controversy. One of the most interesting questions was about the media’s tendency to focus on homophobic Christians while saying far less about those Christians who support inclusion and equality.

I do not think the media can take all the blame for this. Pro-equality Christians have often failed to speak up as loudly or clearly as their opponents. We have failed to engage with the media and been too keen to avoid controversy. We have also been extremely under-ambitious. A sign of this is the fact that some supporters of equality have welcomed the Church of England’s decision to allow gay people to become bishops as long as they don’t have sex.

The problem is that this is no progress at all. Gay people can theoretically already become bishops if they don’t have sex, because the anti-equality lobby insist that they are concerned with behaviour, not orientation. The very fact that this controversy exists at all gives the lie to this claim. I have no doubt that potential bishops are questioned and challenged on all sorts of moral issues, and rightly so, but why is it this one that causes so much controversy? Imagine the Church of England giving as much time and energy to debating whether a person who owns shares in an arms company can become a bishop.

Allowing gay men to be bishops only if they are “celibate” will mean holding gay people to a higher standard than straight people. It will mean telling bisexual people that they better be careful about who they happen to fall in love with if they want to be accepted.

Another, equally important, point is often overlooked. Some people are called to celibacy as a vocation. Some people choose celibacy, a very legitimate and valuable choice. What an insult to people with a vocation to celibacy to suggest that their calling is nothing more than a second-class option for people that the Church does not really accept.

If we are to defeat homophobia and come anywhere near to the radical inclusivity of Christ, we cannot accept feeble offerings such as the acceptance only of non-sexually active gay men (they’re all still men, remember) as bishops. Accepting this decision would mean nothing more than agreeing to eat the crumbs dropped from the anti-equality table.

Photo credit: Andrew Smith

Day 10: Sex-positive Christians

Over the last ten days, unpredictability has almost become a way of life. I set off each morning with maps and (usually) knowing where I’m going to stay, only to be surprised by conversations, emails, closed footpaths, media calls, accommodation problems and people’s reactions. And I have to say that, while I find this difficult in some ways, I am in other ways starting to really like it.

Today produced a big surprise on a personal level. I am having a non-walking day in Oxford, prior to speaking at St Columba’s United Reformed Church tomorrow. The church had kindly invited me to a local garden party this afternoon.

I arrived to find my girlfriend, Nicola, already there. I was amazed. Nicola lives in Cambridge, and I’d expected to see her next when I arrive in London on Friday. She’d secretly been in touch with friends in Oxford a week ago to work out how she could be here today, and attend the event tomorrow. She’s been really supportive of my pilgrimage, encouraging me by phone and text as I’ve walked, but I’ve missed her. In Nicola’s turn, she was surprised that I hadn’t even begun to guess that she planned to turn up.

I’m still feeling physically weak and aching quite a bit, despite a very long sleep last night. My friends Sally and Tom, who I stayed with in Oxford last night, had been extremely hospitable, providing me with a hot bath and large meal after I arrived wet, smelly and several hours late. This morning, they kindly left me to sleep instead of disturbing me.

Despite the aches, I discovered that the sleep had revived me mentally. Ideas about religion and sexuality had been whirring round my head yesterday afternoon, but it was difficult to think clearly as I was absorbed in my desire to reach Oxford after getting lost twice.

This morning, I found that the thoughts had clarified themselves into coherent ideas and concepts during my sleep. God does indeed work in surprising ways.

As you might know if you’ve read my blog a few times, I’m keen to promote an approach to sexual ethics that rejects both legalism and hedonism and is based on following the spirit of Christ in lifestyles rooted in love.

This means celebrating sexuality as a gift from God. My concern with this sort of language is that it often seems to be used by Christians who then go on to promote forms of legalism and concentrate on all the bad expressions of sexuality rather than the good ones.

Christians are not the only people to have struggled with  a desire to be positive about sexuality while being concerned that it’s expressed ethically. Shortly after waking up this morning, I was thinking of “sex-positive feminism”. The phrase was adopted by feminists who had become concerned that some forms of feminism appeared to be very negative about sexuality.

And so to me, the obvious phrase to use seems to be “sex-positive Christians”. This seems a good term to describe those of us who want to be unashamed of healthy, ethical, loving sexual expression and to celebrate sex and sexuality as gifts from God. I hope that valuing sexuality in this way can help us to  to be more determined and passionate about tackling abusive and selfish expressions of sexuality. Tackling them not because we are negative about sex, but precisely because we are positive about it.

If you like the term “sex-positive Christians”, please start using it. If you don’t, please challenge me and tell me why. Your thoughts are welcome, whatever your views.

Day 9: Different directions

In the last few days, I have passed several milestones, some perhaps more significant or serious than others. I am over half way, which I’m very pleased about. I managed the day with the furthest distance on Wednesday, when I walked the 19 miles from Daventry to Banbury. As of yesterday, I have my first blister. And today, I got considerably lost for the first time – and for the second time; on two unrelated occasions I went some distance in the wrong direction. To paraphrase Eric Morecombe, I walked down all the right roads, but not necessarily in the right direction.

I got rather dispirited at times, particularly in the last two hours in the rain as I approached Oxford several hours later than intended this evening. I was sustained in part by prayer which I admit at times did not come easily. I was sustained also by the support of friends on the phone, really encouraging messages on Twitter and the practical help of my friend Sharon Langridge, part of my remote support team, who quickly looked up maps and directions on the internet on the occasions when I got so lost that I went off the edge of my own map. Had I phoned Sharon on one more occasion when I wasn’t sure, rather than trusting my instinct, I would have arrived at my destination about an hour earlier.

The five members of my remote support team have been great. They have divided the days of my walk between them, taking responsibility on the days in question for keeping the website and Facebook page updated and phoning me to check things are OK. Yesterday, Ellen Elliot very kindly spent some considerable time phoning churches and groups in Bicester, after the person who had kindly offered to accommodate me had to pull out at the last moment due to illness. Many thanks to Paul Howes, minister of Bicester Methodist Church, who seemed very relaxed about allowing me to stay in his spare room with almost no notice whatsoever.

This walk has already challenged my perception of far more things than I expected. I wrote on Tuesday. about the heart-warming hospitality I’ve received, and how it has sometimes taken surprising forms. Another thing that has been radically affected has been my understanding of space and the physical landscape. I didn’t expect this, despite a question about it at the launch event in Birmingham last week (a question which took me by surprise). I have learnt that I much prefer walking along canal towpaths to anywhere else, not only because they’re generally flat but because of the friendliness of other walkers, cyclists and people on boats. I have learnt the hard way how much roadsigns are set up for motorists and not for walkers. And I have noticed slight hills or dips on roads that I have travelled on before, but thought were flat as I sat on the bus.

It’s a reminder of how much our perceptions are shaped by what is normal in our lives – particularly the normality we are brought up with, but also what is normal for a temporary time (travelling by car, bus or train is just not normal to me at the moment). Like many thoughts that I’ve had since I began walking, I’m reflecting on how this relates to our views on sexuality. I am often accused of supporting same-sex relationships simply because this is the dominant view in society. The people saying this usually (but not always) miss the point that for generations, other Christians opposed same-sex relationships because they were reflecting the dominant view of society in their own time.

While it is not possible to operate outside our own context, or to be entirely objective, we have to ask what it means to live by the spirit and teachings of Christ rather than society’s norms. For those of us who support the acceptance of same-sex relationships, that means making sure that we’re not simply reflecting secular liberal values, but going beyond them, to the far more radical, disturbing and liberating ethics that spring from the freedom found in Christ. That’s not an easy thing even to think about, let alone to do. I’ll be reflecting on it further over the coming days. As always your thoughts, suggestions, questions and advice are very welcome.

Day 8: One blister, Bicester, bath, biscuits and bed (ahh)

Hello blog readers,

Symon has passed on this message:

“Sorry for the lack of a blog tonight. I’ve had problems with accommodation and internet access (I’m dictating this to my friend Ellen over the phone) but things are now sorted. I’ll be blogging as normal after my arrival in Oxford tomorrow.

Thanks for your patience.”

 

After two relatively long days walking, Symon has reached Bicester tonight, which means he has passed the halfway mark!

Day 7: One foot in front of the other

Before I started my walk, a colleague encouraged me by saying I just needed to put one foot in front of the other – a considerable number of times. I bore this in mind today as I neared the end of the 19 miles from Daventry to Banbury. Today’s walk covered a longer distance than any other day of the whole pilgrimage. It gave me chance to reflect on many issues and questions, from the nature of repentance to the benefits of walking. However I am now exhausted and I hope you’ll bear with me if I share those thoughts with you over the next few days rather than tonight. Right now, I’m going to bed.

Pilgrimage Day 6: Walking home to a different Christ

I have arrived in Daventry, the town I grew up, the town in which I became a Christian, and later became a homophobe.

I made the mistake of thinking I knew the area well enough not to consult the map too often. But I came off the canal towpath too soon, spending the second half of my walk along the side of an A-road that temporarily dampened my spirits in the same way that they had been lifted by the friendliness of people around the canal. Eventually, I arrived at my mother’s house, where I’m staying tonight. I’ve already enjoyed her good and familiar cooking.

I often to come to Daventry to visit my mother, my sister, brother-in-law, nephew and niece, but my visit today seemed to bring up far more memories. This was partly because of its significance as part of my pilgrimage of repentance and partly because of the angle I entered Daventry from. I walked through the Grange – the council estate where I grew up – and passed several places I hadn’t seen for years. I was living on the Grange when I became a Christian in my late teens.

In some ways, I had a rather strange sense of coming home, both physically and mentally. I became a Christian because of a wonderfully liberating, empowering, challenging and uplifting encounter with Christ. I felt that God was calling me to engage more fully with my thoughts and experiences and to seek to live up to the challenge of following the teachings of Jesus and the spirit of Christ within.

Joining a church was also a very positive experience, but over time I accepted the church’s opposition to same-sex relationships and then get involved in more extremist forms of Christianity (mostly outside that church) that bordered on fundamentalism.

It is sometimes assumed that the more “conservative” interpretations of a religion are by definition the most authentic forms of it. This is ridiculous. Fundamentalism is essentially a modern idea, as religious groups have reacted to the diversity of faiths and cultures by insisting that no religion or worldview other than their own contains even an element of truth. As a teenager, I accepted the literal interpretation of six-day creation and denied the reality of evolution.

I didn’t realise then that literal creationism is a fairly recent idea. Prior to the Enlightenment, people routinely understood that something could convey truth without being literal fact. Rationalism and modern science changed this understanding. Fundamentalists who insist that the world was literally created in six days are thus buying into the very rationalism that they see themselves as opposing.

As I read Paul’s Letter to the Galatians (part of the New Testament) while sitting on the canal towpath today, I was reminded of the exciting Christ that had greeted me when I became a Christian shortly before my eighteenth birthday.  Christ was challenging, questioning, thought-provoking. Why did I turn him into a legalist, forgetting that some of his harshest words were saved for those Pharisees who seemed to think that they could earn God’s favour by following detailed rules while neglecting love and compassion.

Legalistic Christianity is far from being the most “authentic” form of Christian faith. It is alien to the teachings of the New Testament. In Galatians, Paul expressed his fury and frustration at those Gentile Christians who had abandoned a commitment to the Spirit of Christ with a devotion to Old Testament laws.

“In Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything,” declared Paul, “The only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Galatians 5,6).

Paul would be horrified that many Christians now snatch lines of his writings out of context to justify a legalism that he wanted to free people from. Today, I was remembering the Christ I experienced inwardly as a teenager. I read Paul’s insistence that those who live by the Spirit will not satisfy the desires of their selfish nature (or “the flesh” as he puts it). He stated bluntly, “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law” (Galatians 5,18).  Or, as John Henson’s translation Good As New puts it, if you are led by the Spirit, “you don’t need rules”.

Living by the Spirit is very hard. I for one fail to do so most of the time. But it is what Jesus and the New Testament call us to.  It is much harder than following a set of rules, but at the same time much more fulfilling and liberating – like the Christ I encountered as a seventeen-year-old.

This seems to me to be very relevant to our debates about sexual orientation. To paraphrase Paul, in Christ Jesus neither homosexuality nor heterosexuality counts for anything. What counts if faith working through love.

Day 5: Hospitality

Before today, I had never given a radio interview while sitting on a canal towpath using my mobile phone.

This morning, Premier Christian Radio called and requested an interview about Trevor Philips’ recent comments on British Christians’ attitudes to sexual orientation. Fortunately, today’s route was mostly quiet, without noisy traffic to disturb the recording. After some fairly busy roads over the last few days, it was nice to spend much of today walking by the Grand Union Canal, especially given the sunny weather.

I was due to stay in Southam tonight, but had been worried for a while that I had no accommodation arranged there. I was reluctant to stay in a B&B, as pilgrimage usually involves reliance on hospitality.

Amazingly, a minister at a church in Leamington offered last night to pay for my accommodation in a B&B in Southam as an act of hospitality and support. We couldn’t fine a B&B in Southam, so I’m staying in Long Itchington, a village a couple of miles away, having walked here from Southam.

This situation is a great example of the wonderful welcome and hospitality that I have been privileged to receive on this pilgrimage. I’ve been really humbled by the generosity of both friends and strangers. Finding myself in this B&B, I am also reminded of how unpredictable the pilgrimage is already proving to be. Perhaps it is the very nature of hospitality that it is not always easy to see it coming.

Day 4: Praise and criticism

I went to Leamington Peace Festival this afternoon – and got lost on the way. Today’s a non-walking day, and the walk should have taken about 15 or 20 minutes from my friends’ flat. This doesn’t bode well for successfully making the remaining 124 miles without at some point going in the wrong direction.

It’s good to have a day off walking (after 36 miles over the last three days), and especially nice to stay with my friends Emma and Peter in Leamington. They are not only great company but are being persistently hospitable and caring. Emma just turned down my offer of help with the washing up, encouraging me to take the time to write my blog (I’ll try not to take this as a slur on my washing-up abilities).

The day’s been busier than I’d expected. I got up for an interview with BBC Coventry & Warwickshire at 8.00am, and spent much of the morning replying to comments on my blog that had built up over the last few days. On the one hand, many of the comments contain praise and encouragement (which I really appreciate and find helpful, although I feel undeserving of much of the praise). On the other hand, there are aggressively critical comments, often making inaccurate assumptions about my beliefs. Politely critical comments are in short supply. Reading comments that alternate between high praise and outraged insults is a rather weird experience.

Another suprise awaited me at the Leamington Peace Festival, when I went to talk to people at a stall run by Coventry and Warwickshire Friend, an LGBT helpline. One of them had heard me on Radio 4 this morning, and they began to ask me about my pilgrimage. A couple standing nearby said that they had also heard of it and expressed their support. I was rather taken aback; the walk has already received far more publicity than I expected.

The couple, Sophie and Nina, shared their mixed experiences of church attitudes to their sexuality. Sophie belongs to a Methodist church in Leamington and I was really pleased to hear that the church has been supportive of her relationship with Nina. In contrast, Nina, who is Italian, spoke of the hostility of the Roman Catholic Church to same-sex relationships, and we discussed the situation of Catholics who take a different view.

I’m looking forward to accompanying Emma and Peter to their church, St Mark’s, this evening. And – despite not walking today – I’m already looking forward to an early night afterwards. The three days’ walking so far is still affecting me.