What institutional homophobia looks like

Here’s a quick example to illustrate what institutional homophobia looks like.

Yesterday the report of the Theological Forum of the Church of Scotland to the General Assembly was published and it deals with a number of issues of interest to LGBT people. (It is well worth a read).

Amongst the “deliverances” ie proposals to go to the General Assembly from that Forum is this very clear call for an apology to LGBT people.

The General Assembly:

Invite the Church to take stock of its history of discrimination at different levels and in different ways against gay people and to apologise individually and corporately and seek to do better.

What could be clearer? Should the General Assembly apologise for discrimination against gay people it would be a huge and significant moment and very much to be welcomed.

However, listen to what the Principal Clerk to the General Assembly, the Very Rev John Chalmers of the Church of Scotland said on TV last night about the proposal:

“What the General Assembly is being asked to do this year  is acknowledge and apologise for some of the harsh things that have been said on both sides of this debate over the last 20 to 30 years and I think the General Assembly will readily want to do that.”

This is very clearly not what the General Assembly is being asked to do.

This is a good example of institutional homophobia. In describing a call to apologise to gay people, gay people and their supporters are represented as being people making statements for 20 or 30 years which need to be apologised for.

I don’t believe that John Chalmers is a homophobe. Just the opposite. I’m quite sure that he is charming to gay people and I suspect he wants the church to accept gay people. However, put in a public position to explain a proposal to apologise for discrimination he gets it very wrong.

I have no doubt that there are huge institutional pressures on him over this issue and that is why he speaks as he does.

However, this looks to me like a very clear example of what institutional homophobia looks like. Institutional homophobia seems to come most often from people who are personally supportive of those of us who are gay.

Ironically, this is the kind of thing that needs to be apologised for.

We have it in our church too.

I find that people don’t like me pointing it out.


  1. Edward Andrews says

    Yes, I noticed that as well. It is nothing to do with what was said on both sides (the internal conversation in the Kirk) everything to do with what was said or about people who are gay.
    I would however put in a plea of mitigation for him in that he has to reflect what the institution can get away with. Personally I would have no problem if the so called Confessing Bunch (which an abuse of the name of the Church of Barth and Bonhoeffer neither of whom they would give house room) packed their traps and left, but John can’t say that because that is not policy, though I know a number of people who feel my way.

    • I think the problem here is not so much what the institution can get away with but that the words he says are factually wrong. What the Assembly is being asked to do is not what he says the Assembly is being asked to do.

      As I’ve said, I recognise the pressures on someone in his position. But that’s kind of the point.

  2. Fr Keith says

    Extremely well put, Kelvin…

  3. Richard Ashby says

    Since I don’t know the man I have no idea whether or not he is homophobic personally, but you’re quite right. That’s not what the report says. And in anycase why apologise for only ‘some’ of the harsh things. What about the rest?

  4. Hey Kelvin,
    Thanks for your post.
    I think it is helpful as someone who is going into preparation for the General assembly.
    I hear what you say … I for one, on behalf of me, my congregation (the one I serve now, the ones in which I have served and the one in which I grew up), and my denomination seek to apologise unreservedly for any ways in which we have treated those who are LGBTI in any way which falls short of mirroring the love of God.
    John was in a challenging position, defending a report which had been leaked to the media before he could get his head around it fully. He may have been the secretary of the forum but our timescales mean this report would have been finalised in late January and, since then, as Principal clerk, he will have been through every other report going to Assembly.
    Perhaps, we might see this as more of a need for a refresh of what the leaked report said in its entirety at a time when called for comment out of the blue, than anything else. I would imagine that might be close to the mark in this one!

    • Thanks for your comments, Bryan.

      I’m struggling a bit with your interpretation of what happened. The report doesn’t call for “both sides” to apologise – that isn’t even it’s tone. And in the rest of the news report, the Principal Clerk is shown sitting at a table reading it.

      I do hear your desire to think the best of him – and honestly, this isn’t personal, I’m sure he is lovely.

      The consistent experience that I have is that the most difficult things that are said about gay people come from people who would claim to be supportive.

      A number of gay C of S clerics were in touch with me to affirm that they had heard these comments in the same way that I have outlined above.

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