An interview by Jay Clark
This June, Symon Hill will undertake a walk of repentance for homophobia, walking from Birmingham to London and arriving on Friday 01/07/2011, the day before London Pride. He will be speaking at churches on the way, and passing through every town and city in which he has lived for more than three months. It’s a personal pilgrimage, of personal repentance, and inevitably a political one too. The question of allowing same-sex marriage remains much discussed, and has been rekindled recently through the Campaign for Equal Love and the passing of the 2010 Equality Act. Although Symon’s walk is not tied to same-sex marriage, or another specific issue, his personal repentance represents an invitation to individuals and institutions to make a public stand for equality.
I asked Symon about his expectations for the walk, and his motivations behind it:
Why did you decide to do a walk of repentance?
I had no problem with homosexuality or bisexuality before I became a Christian. But I chose to support a narrow homophobic position, partly out of a desire to fit in at the church I had joined. I suppressed those aspects of my own sexuality which did not seem to be compatible with the human rules that I had mistaken for God’s will. Although that church played an important role in guiding me towards Christ, I am now convinced they were severely mistaken about sexuality. I have struggled for years with issues of sexuality – through prayer, reflection, personal experience and of course through reading the Bible. And I have come to the conclusion that it is not homosexuality, but homophobia, that is sinful and contrary to the Gospel of Christ.
The idea for the pilgrimage came into my head quite suddenly one day in October 2009. I say “suddenly”, but it really brought together several ideas that were already there: I want to demonstrate repentance of homophobia, to call on the Church as a whole to repent, to promote commitment to equality and radical inclusivity amongst Christians, to meet with and learn from others with various views on the issue and to go on a journey (physically as well as metaphorically) that is more than a speaking tour but gives me time and space to reflect and think as well as to speak.
What does repentance mean to you, and why are you putting yourself through this challenge – why is it important for you to repent so publicly?
In the New Testament, “repentance” is a translation of “metanoia”. An alternative translation of this word is “thinking differently”. To repent is to reorient ourselves and our thoughts away from sin and towards God. Repentance is thus a lifelong process, yet is also needed for particular actions. I believe that God has forgiven me for my homophobia, and I know that several people who have been harmed by it have also forgiven me. This is wonderful. I am certainly not suggesting that God’s forgiveness is dependent on my walk. But repentance is not always easy. I wish publicly to demonstrate my change of view. There is a danger that I could be so embarrassed or ashamed by my former actions that I just don’t talk about them.
I want to challenge both the “liberal” and “conservative” wings of the Church over this issue. Those churches which accept same-sex relationships are frequently holding back from standing up for equality, often out of a misplaced desire for unity. It is also important that we don’t seem simply to be copying popular secular values but supporting equality out of a commitment to God’s love.
I think some inclusive Christians sometimes shy away from overtly religious language – words such as “repentance”, “sin” and so on – for fear of putting people off. But why should homophobes have more right to use these words than we do? This language can be both liberating and spiritually powerful.
Will you be speaking to audiences who share your views or will you be challenging people?
I want to be challenged, as well as to challenge others, during my pilgrimage. I’ll be speaking to anyone who invites me! Of course, supportive groups are more likely to invite me than hostile ones. However, I believe that I will on occasion be speaking at churches that include people with a mix of views such as the talk at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church on the evening before Pride, when I’ll have just arrived in London.
It’s also possibly that some churches will host me as part of a debate rather than ask for a straightforward talk. A Christian campaigner and blogger who opposes same-sex relationships has expressed an interest in debating with me. Furthermore, it’s not just a matter of people either agreeing or disagreeing with me. They may agree with me on some points but not on others. Being “liberal” does not guarantee agreement with me! Christian debates over sexuality don’t have only two sides.
What reactions have you had to the walk, and has the reaction differed between Christians and non-Christians?
I’ve been overwhelmed and deeply moved by the many positive reactions I’ve received since announcing my plan. The support has come from people with a range of views on religion and a diversity of sexualities. They have included straight, gay, bisexual and queer Christians. Some of the messages have been deeply personal, for example, from those who have experienced the pain of homophobia in church, and others who have themselves repented of homophobia.
I’ve had a few hostile reactions, sometimes with aggressive language, usually from Christians (but in one case from an aggressive homophobe who was not religious). When I write on issues of religion and sexuality, I often receive hate mail, but I’ve received far less hate mail about my walk. I hope this is because people can see integrity in what I’m doing even if they don’t agree with it.
What joys/rewards/benefits do you think that you might get from this endeavour?
I’m sure there will be lots of joys and rewards, as well as challenges, frustrations and moments of anger and distress. The exciting, but also scary, thing is that I don’t yet know what they’ll be! I know I’ll learn lots from people I meet, as well as from the efforts involved in walking and praying (amongst other things, I hope to listen to the whole New Testament on audio book during the walk). And I’m sure I’ll be fitter by the end of it!
I had been slightly concerned that the support I’ve received could go to my head, and that the public talks and interviews could be an ego trip. But this danger is considerably lessened by the fact that I’m saying “I was wrong”, which is not a principle that leads easily to delusions of grandeur. I’m very nervous, but looking forward to it very, very much.
You can read Symon’s updates and reflections on the walk at http://repenting.wordpress.com.