Claimed tension and hostility between religion and gay people is considerably over-emphasised by out-of-touch faith leaders, suggests new research from the campaigning equalities group Stonewall.
The findings are published as the Lamebth Conference of Anglican Bishops gathers in Kent this week and next, with sexuality one of the key issues of contention - and underlying that, issues of authority, power and how to read the Bible.
But many faith leaders inadequately reflect their followers' religious objections to lesbian and gay sexuality, the research has found. Love Thy Neighbour, published today by Stonewall and based on interviews with Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Christian participants from across the north of England, has found that many hold significantly more moderate views of homosexuality than is often claimed on their behalf.
Participants suggested to researchers from the University of Leeds that when the perceived tension between faith and sexual orientation is discussed in public, the agenda often becomes so dominated by aggression and sensationalism that levels of respect between faith communities and gay communities are overlooked.
Ben Summerskill, Stonewall Chief Executive, said: "Witnessing the saddening divisions in the Church of England demonstrated at this week's Lambeth Conference, it's telling that so many people of faith say they actually live, work and socialise with lesbian and gay people, and that significantly reduces negative ideas about difference. Many Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus are clearly markedly more moderate that we are often allowed to believe."
He continued: "The stark conclusion to draw when it comes to religion and homosexuality is that it may be time to start listening to the voices of the many people of faith in Britain which have until now not been heard enough."
Interviewees suggested that new legal protections for lesbian and gay people, including civil partnership, have had a 'civilising effect' on British society. The increased acceptance of gay people on a national and political level has also had a positive impact on attitudes at a local level, they said.
This confirms the findings of Living together, a YouGov survey of 2,000 people published by Stonewall in 2007, which found that 84 per cent of people who identified as religious disagreed with the statement 'homosexuality is morally unacceptable in all circumstances.'
Participants made a number of recommendations. They included acknowledging that gay people of faith exist and listening to the quieter voices from within faith communities, rather than just those who 'make the most noise'. They suggested that organisations working towards community cohesion should make more effort to listen to all people of faith, not just claimed religious leaders.
Teaching respect in schools was another suggestion made by interviewees. Last year, Stonewall's pioneering School Report found that 75 per cent of young lesbian and gay people currently attending faith schools have experienced homophobic bullying - ten per cent higher than the figure for non faith-based schools.
The new report will strengthen accusations that the 'listening process' within the Anglican Communion has been woefully inadequate - a charge made recently by the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM).
The new book Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change, edited by Simon Barrow, is published by Shoving Leopard / Ekklesia.