Penitent homophobes

Twelve years ago, I raised my hand in a church meeting to give my approval to a vote opposing the ordination of “practising homosexuals” as ministers.

I regret it. I am appalled that I did it. In short, I repent of it.

I was reminded of this after Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester, called on gay people to “repent” this week. The human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell pointed out that Nazir-Ali himself needs to repent – of homophobia.

Calling on homophobes to repent is not such a new idea as it sounds. Christian groups which campaign for the inclusion of gay, lesbian and bisexual people often seem to be full of penitent homophobes. I wouldn't like to estimate a percentage but I'm sure that a sizeable number of pro-inclusion campaigners were formerly on the other side, or at least somewhere in the middle.

I count myself in that number. In supporting sexual attitudes that I then regarded as integral to Christianity, I not only contributed to unjust discrimination but also denied huge swathes of my own sexuality.

Generally, I'm not in favour of Christians parading their repentance in public so that everyone can see how holy they have become. However, I have become convinced this week that those of us who find ourselves campaigning against the prejudice we used to support need to speak up clearly for the need to leave homophobia behind.

This is because, somewhere between the inclusion activists and the homophobic bigots, there are large numbers of genuinely confused Christians. This is not to deny that many anti-inclusion activists are if anything becoming more extreme and less persuadable, as we saw at the launch of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans this week. Participants at the launch meeting seemed happy to receive a message of support from Peter Akinola, a man who refuses to condemn violence against gay people and describes them as “worse than animals”.

I am talking instead about Christians who are unsure of their views on sexuality but are appalled by the attitudes of Akinola and his supporters. My instinct is to label anyone who is not on “our side” as a homophobe, but I know from experience that there are many people whose prejudice is fuelled, if not created, by church leaders telling them over and over again that God has laid down only one acceptable form of sexual expression.

We need to reach out to such people. Not because their prejudice is acceptable – prejudices never are, including my own – but because we believe that there is a good chance that they will change.

This means that we must be sure not only to ground our approaches in the Gospel but to make such grounding abundantly clear. It means strenuously opposing the notion that we believe in an “anything goes” approach to sexuality, instead upholding ethics that are truly spiritual rather than legalistic.

Most demanding and disturbing of all, we should remember when confronting homophobes that Jesus urged his disciples to ensure that “your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees”. We can only hope to live up to such a challenge by trusting in God's love, forgiveness and strength.

It is time for us all to repent of our homophobia and to make clear that we do so because we are seeking to follow Christ, not in spite of it.

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