Christianity and homophobia in Britain today

Symon Hill
By Symon Hill
18 May 2011

Many thanks to Camden LGBT Forum, who invited me to speak at their event entitled 'The Globalisation of Homophobia' on 17 May. The text of my talk is as follows (while there are slight differences between the text here and the exact words I spoke at the time, the substance is the same).

Many people identify Christianity with homophobia, misogyny, social control and sexual abuse. I can hardly blame them for doing so. All manner of evil has been justified in the name of Christianity. Much of the Church is, to one extent or another, homophobic. This homophobia is perpetuated by bigots who define their faith by their hatred of gay people and by liberals who fail to speak up for inclusion out of a misplaced desire for unity. The hypocrisy which often accompanies such prejudice has been exposed in its most sickening form in recent revelations about church-based child abuse.

But there are also many inclusive Christians. Quakers, Unitarians and the Metropolitan Community Church are ready to carry out same-sex marriages. Within larger denominations, such as the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church, there are individuals and groups who back inclusion. A number of queer Christians suggest that their queerness is not incidental to their Christianity but is inspired and affirmed by their understanding of Jesus' teachings.

And there are large numbers of Christians who have changed their minds, as well as those who have rejected same-sex relationships in the past but are now questioning their convictions and genuinely struggling with the issues.

The backlash against LGBT rights

We have made enormous strides in this country in terms of the acceptance of same-sex relationships and the legal rights of LGBT people. There is still a long way to go in terms of legal equality, not least in the area of marriage recognition. But we are also far from general social acceptance. It would be silly to pretend that same-sex relationships are universally accepted. There is a significant minority of people who reject them, as well as others who feel uncomfortable about them.

Furthermore, we are now seeing the signs of a systematic backlash against LGBT rights. Certain groups - such as Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre - put much if not most of their energy into campaigning against the acceptance of homosexuality and bisexuality. A campaign pioneered by Christian Concern resulted in the House of Lords watering down last year's Equality Act to significantly reduce the rights of employees in faith-based organisations to freedom from discrimination. At the same time, there has been a rise in the promotion of so-called therapy to "heal" gay and bisexual people.

I'm not suggesting that Christian groups, or even religious groups generally, are responsible for all the homophobia in Britain. Media attitudes play an important role, not least in the scandal of homophobic bullying in British schools. The rise in reported homophobic and transphobic hate crime may be down to the increased visibility of LGBT people or result from the greater likelihood of hate crime being reported. But groups such as Christian Concern play a vital role in giving a façade of moral respectability to homophobia. That's why they are so frequently quoted in the Daily Mail.

Jesus, sexuality and "Christian values"

If we are to defeat homophobia, we must try to understand why some are so keen to promote it. This means understanding the role that disputes over sexuality have come to play within Christianity.

And so here, please allow me to take you on a whistlestop tour through significant moments in the history of Christianity.

We begin with Jesus, who practised radical inclusivity, challenged the powerful and taught forgiveness, nonviolence and love for all people, including enemies. He proclaimed freedom - freedom from social, political, religious and emotional oppression. They killed Jesus because he was too free.

Jesus repeatedly broke the sexual conventions of his day. This point is constantly overlooked. He allowed women to make physical contact with him in a society that found it shocking. He redefined family, saying, "Whoever does the will of God is my brother, my mother, my sister". He condemned divorce in a society in which only a man could initiate a divorce, reducing his wife to social disgrace and often poverty. He socialised with prostitutes. This does not mean he approved of prostitution, but he saved his harshest words for the rich and powerful and for religious hypocrites.

No wonder that Jesus has been such a profound embarrassment to Christianity.

Today, those who talk loudest about "Christian values" are often those who pay least attention to Jesus' lifestyle and teachings. I am not suggesting that Jesus would be relaxed about sexual ethics or condone all sexual practices in our society. He condemned child abuse. His principles of love and fidelity are contrary to sexual activity that is selfish, coercive, manipulative, deceitful or without love for others involved.

Jesus' teachings left the earliest Christians with radical forms of community that challenged the hierarchical nature of society around them. The apostle Paul in his Letter to the Galatians, wrote, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus".

Christendom and compromise

But it was not long before Christians began to compromise Jesus' values with the views of those who held power around them. I cannot judge them, for most of us are far more compromised in our principles than we would like to admit. One of the later writings in the New Testament - the Letter to the Ephesians - tells wives to obey their husbands. Ephesians is attributed to Paul although nearly all scholars agree that he did not write it.

The drift towards social respectability continued. Later in the fourth century, the Roman Empire domesticated Christianity by making it in the imperial religion. Christian leaders found themselves defending the empire, its wars and oppression, and upholding views and values they had previously attacked. I'm sure you can think of comparisons in today's society. I'll forbear from making too many jokes about Liberal Democrat ministers.

As the Church became part of the establishment, it became much easier to attack the sexual sins of individuals than the structural sins of exploitation and war. Theologians such as Augustine developed the notion of "original sin", arguing that sex was the means by which original sin was passed on. At the same time, they abandoned early Christian pacifism in favour of "just war" theory. The combined effect was that the focus of sin was moved away from violence and on to sex.

This was the beginning of Christendom - a situation that continued in Europe up until the twentieth century and remains, at least in part, in other areas of the world today. The term "Christendom" describes a situation in which the Church gives moral sanction to the state and in return is privileged and protected by the state's laws and armies.

Opportunity or threat?

Over the last few decades, Christendom has been fading in Britain as our country has become more diverse and multifaith. Far fewer people are familiar with Christianity. Some Christian groups, such as Ekklesia, see Post-Christendom as an exciting opportunity to move on from Christianity's compromise with wealth and power and look again at the subversive teachings of Jesus.

Other Christians find Post-Christendom unsettling. People who are used to privilege find it hard to give up. Indeed, they are - almost by definition - generally unaware that they are privileged, seeing the request of others for equality as an unreasonable demand. This is how the rich often respond to socialism, how lots of men have reacted to feminism, straight people to calls for LGBT inclusion, and non-disabled people to the disability rights movement. Of course there are exceptions in each case, but often the people in the privileged position genuinely do not realise how privileged they are. So it is with those Christians who are outraged that what they regard as Christian morality is no longer a guiding principle in courts, schools or the House of Commons.

Before we rush to judge them, let's ask ourselves how good we are at adapting to change and how much we notice if we benefit form others' exclusion. We have the same human traits as our opponents. This does not mean they should not be challenged.

Perhaps because social and legal attitudes towards same-sex relationships have changed relatively quickly, homosexuality has become a key issue for socially conservative groups such as Christian Concern and Anglican Mainstream. Indeed, it has gone beyond being a key issue. They almost define their religion by it.

This is as theologically absurd as it is morally repugnant. Even if we were to interpret the Bible as condemning same-sex relationships, that would hardly make it the key issue for Christians to campaign on. The Bible says a great deal more about the use of money than it does about sex. Yet I've never seen Christian Concern and Anglican Mainstream campaign against the prevailing political ideology which sacrifices compassion and humanity on the altars of the free market.

Changing minds

To challenge the homophobia that these groups promote, we must recognise that it comes from a place of fear about loss of status. To understand is not to excuse. But understanding what we are up against will help us overcome it. It can help us feel compassion for those we campaign against, even while we are appalled by what they stand for. And it will give us more chance of changing people's minds.

I speak as someone whose mind has been changed. When I became a Christian, I mistakenly thought that Christian ethics were about following rules. I suppressed much of my own sexuality. To my shame, I admit I campaigned against same-sex relationships. As my attitudes have changed, I've become conscious of the hurt to which I have contributed. Next month, I plan to walk from Birmingham to London as a pilgrimage of repentance for my former homophobia. I will give talks at churches on the way, urging them to stand up for equality.

I will arrive in London on the day before Pride, and will speak in central London that evening. If you can make it, I'll be at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church in Shaftesbury Avenue at 7.00 on the evening of 1st July.

I am appalled that Christians are at the forefront of the fight for homophobia. I think it's vital that more us are at the forefront of the fight against it.

Tackling homophobia together

Having spoken a bit about the nature of Christian homophobia in Britain, I'd like to suggest four ways in which I think it can be tackled.

Firstly, it is vital that inclusive Christians stand up and speak out firmly against the exclusion and marginalisation of sexual minorities. As long as the anti-equality lobby can claim that they represent Christianity, they are able to give the impression of having a great many supporters while they misuse the language of rights and liberty to promote their agenda. I understand that many inclusive Christians care about unity and I'm not suggesting that we should treat all those who struggle with the issues as outright bigots. Nonetheless, there are times when we must choose between the idol of unity and the God of love.

Secondly, pro-equality Christians need to be prepared to work with people of other religions and of none to challenge homophobia, even when this means campaigning alongside non-Christians against other Christians. Similarly, we need support in our own struggles from non-Christians committed to equality. It saddens me that I am sometimes attacked by people who support LGBT rights, but who are so anti-Christian that they don't like the idea of Christians campaigning for equality.

Thirdly, we must stand firm against homophobia without ever descending to the level of personal hatred for homophobes. As I know from my own experience, their minds may be changed. I will never support the idea that homophobes should be allowed to discriminate in, for example, the provision of bed and breakfast. But I will always support their freedom of speech. This is for reasons of both principles and tactics. They claim that they are being denied freedom of conscience. Let's not play into their hands.

Fourthly, we must recognise that homophobia is one of many injustices in our society, that LGBT people are one of several groups who continue to experience marginalisation. Homophobia has historically been a means of social control, that keeps people in structures that serve the interests of those with wealth and power. And the powerful are always ready to co-opt previously radical movements for their own ends. In recent years, many companies and corporations have seen so-called gay culture as a moneymaking opportunity. Britain now has its "first gay wedding magazine", which peddles the same consumerist message as its straight equivalents.

We have not fought for equality simply so that we can be economically exploited on the same basis as straight people. The fight against homophobia must be part of wider struggles against capitalism.

Loving enemies is not the same as having no enemies. Jesus loved the powerful and urged them to repent. He confronted them nonetheless. He overturned the tables of the exploitative traders in the Jerusalem Temple. He found some of the worst injustice and hypocrisy in the Temple itself, just as we can find it in the Church today. To follow Jesus is to stand against the dominant values of our society and to face the prejudices of those who try to make us conform. Following Jesus means standing up to the powerful and, sometimes, standing up to the Church.

---------

(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia. In summer 2011, he will walk from Birmingham to London as a pilgrimage of repentance for his former homophobia (see http://www.repenting.wordpress.com).

The above article was originally delivered as a talk at 'The Globalisation of Homophobia', an event at University College London on 17 May 2011, organised by Camden LGBT Forum (see http://www.camdenlgbtforum.org.uk) to mark the International Day Against Homophobia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License. Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.