This address was given at St Marks, Fitzroy, Victoria at the LGBTI apology

Saturday 19 July 2014

“Sorry”: tiny word – HUGE implications

Sorry is such a simple word. Sadly it can never automatically right the wrongs of the past but, said with deep sincerity and authenticity, creates the potential for healing and reconciliation.

“Sorry” derives from a prehistoric Germanic root word meaning “sore or pained”. So for a person to be genuinely sorry there must be some pain or sorrow.

The church has never really been good at saying “sorry”. It often moves on and changes without stopping to honestly acknowledge their involvement in the wrongs from the past. Or ever saying “we were wrong” either through our opposition and rejection or by complicity and remaining silent about injustices

And when the sorry comes it can take a long time coming. Look at how long it took the Catholic church to say sorry for imprisoning Galileo as heretic; three centuries actually.

When I say “the church” I know it is a very general term. In the Nicene creed we say ” We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.”  But in truth the church is a fractured entity that has everything from extreme right wing conservatives who are involved in politics to contemplatives locked away in monasteries that do nothing more than pray every day. These two extremes are as different as black and white. Between the black and white  there is every shade of grey. With so many expressions of Christianity not only in the entire church but also denominations, if there is anyone who should understand the dynamics and value of diversity it should be the Christian church.

Even within the Anglican church there are deep divides on theology, worship and practices. Somehow or other we, and I mean LGBT people (people of sexual orientation and gender diversity) that got thrown into the middle of these divides and we became THE “issue”.

It was the ordaining of Bishop Gene Robinson in 2003, the first “openly” gay bishop that brought these divides into the public arena and further polarised the denomination. When I say openly gay bishop we have to emphasise the word “openly” because obviously there have been may gay bishops and priests who served God and their churches. These men were either forced to remain in the closet or choose to because the price of honesty was too high. I think this is a sad indictment on the church.

A truce has been called to hold the Anglican Church together.

I have often wondered if LGBT people are really that  powerful that they could potentially divide a denomination. I think not. It’s just that we became the oxygen that ignited the smouldering fire of the divides over power, culture and the authority and interpretation of scripture.

A great deal of harm has been done to LGBT people because of the Christian church. A lot of people have been hurt and damaged. Lives have been lost when the internal perceived conflict of faith and sexual orientation, or rejection by Christian family and friends or years of internalised homophobia (self-hatred) became too much and they ended their lives.

When my autobiography “A Life of Unlearning” was released I received a daily avalanche of emails from those who been  hurt and damaged. Many stories made me weep. I helped found an organisation called Freedom2b which became a support network for many of these people. Actually 1,000’s. One day a post appeared on the online forum from a young 19 year old man. Stories like his were common butthis one was miraculous.

“I have been a Christian all my life from when I was about 5… I believe that God is my saviour but have severe trouble coming to grips with why He would love me.

I’m not “out” to anyone… or sure how to go about it… or even if I should come out.

I have known I was “different” to those around me for many years and not attracted to girls My struggle really started 5-6 years ago when i was in grade 9. I came to the conclusion I must be gay… I have been raised by a Christian mother in the Salvation Army whose stance was basically that being gay is wrong. My Grandmother didn’t help either. I remember watching a dancing competition on TV and being told “They are wonderful, Too bad they are gay. They’ll go to hell!”

I have always believed that Christians aren’t gay and if they were there are programs that can fix them.

In year 9 I couldn’t come to grips with myself and attempted suicide. I was caught by a teacher and rushed to hospital. And diagnosed with depression.  I figured that if I put these feelings in a box and left it alone I would get over it…. but I attempted suicide again in Year 10 and once again in Year 11. I could never tell anyone the reasons why I wanted to take me life. I felt so much shame.

Which brings me back to this week. I am currently in Sydney for work and was fed up with myself again. And was planning on killing myself for good last night.

My work involves searching popular social media websites i.e. Blogger, Twitter etc for mentions of the company I work for. I was finishing my work, sending it to server and about to write a goodbye email before drowning myself.  Before I could finish my email a stray result came into my inbox. This had nothing to do with my work and didn’t match any of my criteria. There is no reason it should have been there.

It was the story of another young guy just like myself who had been helped through the freedom2b site. I opened it and howled my eyes out. Reading about another person in my circumstances and finding out I am not the only one… Then I found a link to this page and howled even harder Finding a group of people who believe you can be a gay and a Christian. Even better seeing the evidence against “Ex-Gay” therapies and classes made me feel so much better.

I’m so grateful for this site… Without you guys I wouldn’t be alive… Literally.”

How tragic that this young man’s years of unnecessary suffering was caused by nothing more than Christian ignorance and misinformation. And I wonder how many more are there out there like this young 19 year who have never heard that God loves them. And that God is no more concerned about a person’s sexual orientation than his is about how tall or short you are, left-handed, right-handed, the colour of your skin, eyes or hair. These things are inconsequential to God. Why has the Church been so fixated about it?

As we have moved to new levels of understanding about sexual orientation and gender identity people have become conscious of the wrongs of the past.

I’ve been involved in a number of apologies over the last few years.

The first was getting five of Australia’s former ex-gay leaders to apologise in 2007. These were people had been involved in ministries and organisations that believed firstly that to be homosexual (same sex oriented) meant you were flawed or broken and secondly that through faith and the power of God you could be “healed” and “cured”. I now have seven apologies from Australian former ex-gay leaders. One is from a straight man but the rest are gay or lesbian. Most are now in long term committed relationships. They were apologising for the part they played  They acknowledged their ignorance and said sorry for any harm they may have caused because of that.

The second apology was the 100REVS which was a group of 100 ministers who signed a written apology in 2008. These were ministers from a spectrum of expressions of Christianity including mainline, evangelical and Pentecostal.

They simply said.

“As ministers of various churches and denominations we recognise that the churches we belong to, and the church in general, have not been places of welcome for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) people. Indeed the church has often been profoundly unloving toward the GLBT community. For these things we apologise, whatever the distinctive of our Christian position on human sexuality – to which we remain committed. We are deeply sorry and ask for the forgiveness of the GLBT community. We long that the church would be a place of welcome for all people and commit ourselves to pursuing this goal”.

Unlike Bishop John MacIntyre’s statement “yes we got it wrong” The 100REVS apology was purposely worded to not include any doctrinal statements. After the apology they clarified.

“We ARE a group of Christian ministers who voluntarily and individually bring this apology.

We ARE NOT official representatives of our churches or denominations.

We ARE NOT making a statement on the biblical position on gay and lesbian relationships”.

It was highly controversial though. One day you’d see the name of a minster added. The next day it disappeared. They’d been threatened by denominational hierarchies that if they didn’t remove their names they would lose their jobs or parishes. Eventually they got 100 names but only 35 marched in the Mardi Gras parade. Many once again, fearing denominational reprisals for identifying with the LGBT community in that way, pulled out.

One step ahead your are leader. Two an innovator. Three a martyr. Many have paid a high price to be so far out in front.

The most recent apology I have been involved in was Alan Chambers, the former president of Exodus international. Exodus international was the largest, most influential, longest running (37 years) ex-gay/reparative/conversion therapy organisation in the world. In June last year (2013) Exodus and Alan Chambers said “sorry we were wrong” and overnight closed its doors. I was privileged to be at the conference and witness it.

Alan Chambers listened to peoples stories, moved away from “Christian” legalism and judgmentalism to a place of Christian love and grace. In his written apology to the LGBT community he said.

“Please know that I am deeply sorry. I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents. I am sorry that there were times I didn’t stand up to people publicly “on my side” who called you names like sodomite—or worse. I am sorry that I, knowing some of you so well, failed to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I know were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as the straight people that I know. I am sorry that when I celebrated a person coming to Christ and surrendering their sexuality to Him that I callously celebrated the end of relationships that broke your heart.   am sorry that I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine.

More than anything, I am sorry that so many have interpreted this religious rejection by Christians as God’s rejection. I am profoundly sorry that many have walked away from their faith and that some have chosen to end their lives For the rest of my life I will proclaim nothing but the whole truth of the Gospel, one of grace, mercy and open invitation to all to enter into an inseverable relationship with almighty God.

Moving forward, we will serve in our pluralistic culture by hosting thoughtful and safe conversations about gender and sexuality, while partnering with others to reduce fear, inspire hope, and cultivate human flourishing.”

Some people say sorry all the time. They always seem to be apologising. It loses its meaning.

When a sorry is genuine there has to be action to give it credibility. St Marks, I know, is doing things and will do things that demonstrate this is a genuine apology. May you be a shining example to other parishes and churches. The apologies at this stage have been from individuals and tonight from the first Anglican parish in Australia, but as understanding and acceptance grows it will gain momentum and eventually entire denominations which will take this significant step and begin the healing process.

For an apology to have its full impact though something must happen in those it is offered to. We are half the equation. Just as no one can be forced to apologise no one can be forced to forgive. Just as there are some in the Christian church who refuse to apologise for the harm ignorance has caused to gay and lesbian people so there are LGBT people who refuse to forgive. They are hurt, angry and bitter at God and the church.

There are those though who know the power of forgiveness. Or at least that it can simply be an act of self preservation for the only person you really hurt by being unforgiving is yourself. Un-forgiveness is taking the poison you intended for another. Forgiveness is setting the prisoner free only to realise you were the prisoner.

So as you willingly and sincerely say sorry tonight to the LGBT community there are those of us who say thank you and we forgive. This makes the apology complete. As I mentioned at the beginning, sorry will never automatically right the wrongs of the past but, said with deep sincerity and authenticity, creates the potential for healing and reconciliation.

We can walk arm in arm in together in peace demonstrating, reconciliation, love and grace to a world which so desperatelyneeds it.

Images courtesy of Hadden Media Group

© Anthony Venn-Brown