Homosexuality is mysterious: we do not really know what it is. It is politically correct to see it as an innate genetic thing like skin colour, but this is untenable. For it is possible for a heterosexual to experience homosexual desire, or to have an active homosexual phase. Also, it is clear enough that nurture plays a huge role in the formation of sexuality, and that our very concept of homosexuality is culturally determined. Our idea of homosexuality is a rather recent invention. In our narrative, a young adult discovers that he or she is different, and announces his or her commitment to this different identity. Coming out is a bit like a pledge: this is not a phase, but who I am; I commit myself to this identity. Every previous culture to our own would have seen it as odd, this insistence that homosexuality is a fixed identity, which one discovers within one's soul, and sticks to. To the ancient Greek, homosexuality was something you might do for a while, like playing football, or seeing a shrink - this was indeed a freer idea of sexuality.
We like to think we are the most liberated imaginable culture, but actually our narrative of homosexuality suggests otherwise: we demand that homosexuality is penned in by this idea of either-or identity. We have opted to tolerate "identity homosexuality" instead of temporary homosexuality and bisexuality, which are potentially more threatening to the dominant sexual order (the '"straightus-quo"?). Because this development is so recent, it makes little sense to say that ancient Israelite culture was "anti-gay". It also makes little sense to say that ancient Greek culture was gay-friendly. For neither culture shared our idea of what homosexuality is. In fact these ancient cultures agreed more with each other than either does with us. For both saw homosexuality as a form of behaviour rather than an innate identity. To the ancient Jew, it was a disgustingly self-indulgent bit of behaviour, inextricable from hedonistic promiscuity, and a befouling of the sacred bond of marriage. To the Greek citizen, it was no big deal; just a facet of (male) human desire.
So the real question is: how should Christians respond to the fact that the Bible condemns homosexual behaviour? Is it legitimate simply to reassert this condemnation, to say that it still stands? No, for two reasons. First, the meaning of homosexuality has changed. In the new narrative of homosexuality, a gay person is just as inclined to seek stable monogamy as a straight person. The Bible's assumption that gay sex is a form of indulgence unrelated to marriage can no longer be shared. Secondly, Christians are not committed to following the rules laid down in the Bible. They reject the need for circumcision and food laws. And all moral laws. St Paul said that we have to break the link between God's will and religious laws. We have to make up morality as we go, putting love and freedom first. Ah, but didn't St Paul clearly condemn gay sex? Yes, but this is because he shared the general biblical view, that it was inextricable from hedonism. Christians who use Paul to condemn homosexuality have failed to grasp Paul's key message: that holy rules are dead. So the answer to this question has two parts. Yes, the Bible condemns homosexual behaviour, as a threat to moral order. But the New Testament condemns something else as well: holy moralism. It announces an anti-legalistic revolution. It tells us we have to keep our moral thinking mobile, open-ended. The Bible sows the seed of the deconstruction of its own sexual moralism.
The prejudice against gay people among conservative Christians is a cultural attitude not reflected in Jesus' teachings. As an atheist it probably isn't my place to comment; however, I went to church regularly for almost a decade, never finding any specific condemnation of homosexuality. You can spout quotes at me as much as you like - religious texts in general aren't a specific guide to how to live one's life. No, the bible is not anti-gay. Jesus never turned away anyone because of their sexuality and I try to live my life by the teachings of Jesus, I suppose. As Jesus said: "love your neighbour as you love yourself". Different traditions have interpreted the Bible in many different ways through the centuries. Africans have their own way of understanding the Bible which is not the same as many in the UK. That makes me wonder whether the African lack of understanding, and dare I say it, hatred of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, is informed by cultural differences. Why is it that LGBT people are often barely tolerated within the church and anywhere in society? Heterosexuals don't expect to be tolerated. We who are gay live alongside them before God, and I often wonder why can't they do the same and live happily alongside me. Supposing we lived in a world where LGBT people were the norm and being heterosexual was feared and hated. Are heterosexuals able to imagine how they would feel if they hid their sexual identity away in the closet for fear of being abused, bullied and even murdered?
Homosexuality existed before the arrival of the slave ships and Christian missionaries, despite the repeated claims that it is something introduced from the west. Both God and faith in the holy were present before the Christians came to introduce, and often impose Christianity on my ancestors and force them to change their culture, impose western moral and ethical values and introduce the idea that same-sex loving relationships are taboo. There are texts in the Bible that can be used to support slavery. Other texts demand outdated forms of punishment for activities that we no longer think of as taboo or criminal. Some conservative Christians are obsessed with reading the Bible literally, trying to reconcile conflicting texts which are against one another. They read Genesis, Leviticus and St Paul and claim that certain verses prove that God judges and condemns everyone who engages in any form of same-sex activity. On the basis of this reading, countries like Uganda propose introducing life imprisonment and the death penalty for gay people. Schism and heresy are nothing in comparison with somebody using the Good Book as such a terrifying weapon against us. That is the greatest blasphemy against God, if there is indeed one.
Like many statements, the recent joint announcement by Liverpool's church leaders condemning homophobia is incomplete without the actions to support it – but it is a good start, and as a gay man, I welcome it. No liberal-minded person, much less gays and lesbians, needs reminding of the church's shameful record on the treatment of homosexuals. At this moment, there is an unconscionable silence from Britain's leading clerics in on the situation in Uganda, where a parliamentary bill puts homosexuality on the verge of becoming punishable by death. In light of these failures, when Christian leaders in the west make a move to decry homophobia, I'm inclined at least to hear them out. It is easy to disassociate oneself from brute thuggery, of course, and glib condemnations of physical violence roll easily off the tongues of even the vilest of religious homophobes. But I don't detect such complacency in this latest statement from Liverpool. It comes in the midst of a real community that has experienced homophobia at its most vicious. In 2008, Liverpool witnessed the murder of gay teenager Michael Causer. Then in October, trainee police officer James Parkes was the victim of a gang assault, narrowly escaping the same tragic consequences.
There has since been a citywide, grassroots effort to stand together against homophobia. A vigil shortly after the attack on James Parkes saw over 1,500 people – gay, straight and everyone in-between – unite against hate. A cursory search of Facebook reveals just how much is going on to combat gay hate in Liverpool, not simply among leaders and politicians, but among ordinary Liverpudlians. So when Catholic Archbishop Patrick Kelly and Anglican Bishop James Jones join other ministers in the city to condemn homophobia, I don't believe they're speaking from a remote place of comfort. They're speaking from the centre of a community that has lived and dealt with the consequences of anti-gay prejudice. Two aspects of the statement struck me. First was the unapologetic placing of LGBT people alongside ethnic and religious minorities: "The leaders of the churches in Liverpool believe it is wrong for anyone in the community of which we are all part to be victimised, or threatened with victimisation, on account of their race, creed, colour or sexual orientation."
This is subtle, but significant. To put sexual orientation on a par with race and religion is anathema to the homophobe, who denies attempts to afford civil rights to gays and lesbians, and thinks of this as political correctness of the worst kind. I am surprised but heartened, therefore, that at Liverpool's Remembrance Day parade this year, Archbishop Kelly risked the ire of homophobes by praising the city's response to homophobia. At the vigil for James Parkes, "thousands said no to such hatred," the Archbishop told crowds. "We affirm our commitment to work with others to build a community where all can have their place of belonging, feel welcome and live in safety. These types of statement often appear begrudging, especially from religious leaders. Often, the impression left is that gays and lesbians should be grateful merely to be left alone to do their thing "in the privacy of their own bedrooms", as if it were enough not to be beaten up or arrested. But this statement goes beyond that. The language of "belonging", "welcome" and "safety" speak of more than begrudging tolerance. To me they suggest an invitation to be accepted, respected and valued. Church leaders may have a way to go, and I won't make excuses for the homophobia that still dominates religion, but nor am I ready to dismiss this one as just another sop to the PC crowd. Making excuses is not necessary to be able to acknowledge and support religious leaders when they make genuinely positive and conciliatory steps towards ending homophobia.