In 1997, I described opposition to same-sex relationships as being a matter of "God's opinion", rather than my own. I made the remark to my colleagues in the Christian youth centre were I worked. One of them was gay. That same year, I nearly told a thirteen-year-old to reject her lesbian feelings. And I voted against the ordination of "practising homosexuals" as ministers in the denomination my church belonged to.
This week, I will begin a walk of 160 miles from Birmingham to London as a pilgrimage of repentance for my former homophobia.
I will begin with a launch event in Birmingham this evening (Wednesday 15 June) and start walking the next morning. I will give talks at churches along the route, encouraging Christians to take a stand for equality. I will arrive in London on Friday 1 July, speaking at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church that evening before joining the Pride march the next day.
News of my walk has provoked a range of reactions. A right-wing US website has accused the churches that are hosting me of "apostasy" (but as the same website regards Barack Obama as the antichrist, I'm not too worried). At the other extreme, someone commenting on an online Guardian article wrote that he would never forgive Christians for homophobia, even if I were to crawl to London on my knees.
At the same time, I have been overwhelmed by the support I have received. My pilgrimage has been endorsed by eleven national organisations, as well as a number of churches and local groups. They include the Student Christian Movement, Accepting Evangelicals, Bisexual Index, the Greenbelt festival and Workshop (who run courses on radical Christian discipleship).
I have been deeply moved by many personal messages of support. They have been sent by a real range of people, from gay Christians to straight atheists. They include a gay Methodist minister who used to deny his own sexuality, a heterosexual Muslim who compared homophobia to Islamophobia and a bisexual Pagan who sent me myrrh powder to use on blisters. I was nearly moved to tears by an email from a Christian mother who had initially struggled with the fact that both her adult children are gay. She had come to accept their sexuality and now promotes LGBT inclusion in the Church.
There is nothing unusual about my journey from homophobe to equality activist. Many Christians have made a similar transition. I don't claim that my homophobia was worse than theirs or my support for equality more effective. As a Christian, I believe God has already forgiven me for the sin of homophobia. My pilgrimage is not an attempt to win God's favour. And it's years since I abandoned homophobia and adopted very different views on sexuality. So why am I going on this walk?
When the idea for the pilgrimage came to me, I knew that I would act on it. While it felt quite sudden, I could see that it resulted from thoughts that had been going round my head for some time. Looking back, I can see four strands that came together.
Firstly, personal accounts from both acquaintances and strangers made me more firmly aware of how much hurt I had caused and contributed to. Secondly, I became more confident and open about my own sexuality. The majority of people I find attractive are women, but some are men. Accepting this has helped me realise the damage I did to my own integrity.
Thirdly, I have become convinced that Christians who oppose homophobia must speak up as loudly as those who promote it. Recent years have seen a backlash against LGBT rights pioneered by certain Christian groups. There has always been some strong opposition to same-sex relationships, but there are now organisations such as Anglican Mainstream and Christian Concern for whom this is a core purpose.
This seems to be a reaction to the decline of Christendom - the situation that prevailed for centuries, in which the official church enjoyed considerable political and cultural power. Christendom has faded in a multicultural society. For some Christians, Post-Christendom is an exciting opportunity to reject churches' collusion with wealth and power and turn again to Jesus' teachings of compassion and radical inclusivity.
But for other Christians, Post-Christendom is frightening. They cling on to the last vestiges of Christendom, such as bishops in the House of Lords and privileges for faith schools. Perhaps because of the speed with which attitudes to homosexuality have changed, they have latched onto the issue as the one to fight over.
Fourthly, I now see more clearly the links between queer freedom and other issues which I really care about. I have long campaigned for nonviolence and economic equality. Jesus saved his harshest words for the rich, the powerful and religious hypocrites who choose legalism over love. He challenged relationships based on power and abuse in favour of those rooted in love and forgiveness.
In our society today, love and power provide competing motivations for relationships and sexual expression. Both hedonism and legalism deny love. Hedonism is based on selfishness. Legalism requires conformity to social conventions that serve the interests of the powerful, for example in the way that the "traditional" nuclear family fits well into the economics of capitalism. Resistance to homophobia must involve resistance to the social and economic structures that have benefited from it.
Not everyone thinks so. For some, the social acceptance of homosexuality is an opportunity for profit. Britain now has its "first gay wedding magazine", which perpetuates the same consumerism peddled by its straight equivalents. Equality must mean more than the right to be economically exploited on the same basis as others.
I am sometimes accused by socially conservative Christians of accepting same-sex relationships simply because I am endorsing the most popular values of society. This is far from the truth. The values that dominate our society are values which are, in theological terms, idolatrous. Our politicians and corporations worship at the altars of money, markets and military might
Jesus sided with those on the margins and predicated that those who hunger for justice will be satisfied. Many other people, both religious and non-religious, have taught similar values of radical compassion. Any attempt to put these values into practice at a social level must involve a rejection of capitalism, militarism and other abusive social structures.
I reject the values of secular liberalism. This is not because they are too radical. It's because they are not revolutionary enough.
(c) Symon Hill is associate director of Ekklesia. For more information on his pilgrimage of repentance for homophobia, please see http://www.repenting.wordpress.com.
This article appeared originally in Green Wedge on 14 June 2011. See http://greenwedge.org/2011/06/14/a-christians-homophobic-repentence.