The Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, Paul Colton, has spoken impassionately in support of gay equality.

Bishop Colton spoke yesterday as the guest of honour at Cork LGBT Awareness Week.

First describing the invitation to speak as “gracious” and “undeserved”, he admitted “over the centuries [Christianity] has caused deep hurt and tangible damage to gay and lesbian people.”

He went on to ask forgiveness, and spoke passionately about raising awareness of diversity, and in agreement with a gay priest who said “being gay is not a choice”.

In expressing hope that gay and lesbian people would not be pushed away from the church, he concluded: “It is vital that you do not let people drive you away.”

Cork LGBT Awareness Week is organised to acknowledge and demonstrate that LGBT individuals are family members, community residents, constituents, citizens, visitors, service users and service providers.

The purpose of the week is to advance Objective 86 of the Cork City Plan “The gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities will be enabled to fully participate in the social, cultural and economic life of Cork City.”

The full speech by Bishop Colton, given on Monday 12 May at Cork Civic Ofices, is available to read below.

I am deeply conscious of how generously gracious and open your invitation to me, a Church leader, is in including me today as your Guest of Honour.  Not gracious in the sense of courteous and kind, but more in the religious sense of grace – your invitation to me is undeserved; it is an unmerited favour.

It is gracious because, whatever about my personal views and solidarity as an individual to gay and lesbian people, it is undeniable that I am part of a religion, and indeed institution, that all too often, over the centuries, has caused deep hurt and tangible damage to gay and lesbian people.

As I said in my Christmas Sermon in St Fin Barre’s Cathedral in 2003: churches have been ‘complicit in injustice to gay and lesbian people and the resulting human suffering.’  That is why, then too, I felt compelled ‘humbly and contritely to ask forgiveness’ of gay and lesbian people, even though it is too late for far too many.

I realise that many gay and lesbian people have given up on institutional religion, or on religion altogether:  ‘a plague on your houses.’  Others are trying to hang in there; as one gay couple in one of our parishes said to me recently ‘we are just about clinging on to the church by our fingertips.’  Hanging in there is hard, faced with what one gay person has described as the Church’s ‘relentless negativity towards me and others’ who are gay.  If you are hanging on to a cliff edge the last thing you need is some fellow believers stomping on those straining finger tips.

In terms of an awareness-raising week like this, it seems to me that it is very fundamental to underscore the diversity of humanity among LGBT people: some are religious: others are not.  Some wrestle with the things of faith: others do not. Equally, although it does not always seem so to the outsider hearing official church pronouncements, there is diversity of outlook within churches on LGBT issues.

There are many Christians, including myself, who believe that God’s justice, God’s love and the inclusiveness of God, must bear fruit in unqualified equality for gay and lesbian people too. As a friend, a gay priest in the UK said only this weekend:

Being gay is not a choice, it is my being, who and what I am as a person before God and though it does not define all that I am it is inseparable from my sense of self and of course from my faith.

Strangely, something that gives me hope  – paradoxically – is the fact that almost from the start, Christians have been arguing among themselves about something or other. First the argument was about circumcision.  Since then the Christian story has been one of prejudice, injustice, labelling as ‘the other’ and failing to show Christ’s love,  being overcome step by step:  slaves, Jews, science,  single mothers, children born outside marriage, people in interchurch marriages, victims of suicide, the downfall of apartheid, divorcees, women (first in decision-making in the Church and then in the ordained ministry); standing up to racism.  Think in our own lifetime of how, arising from our sense of the love of Christ, our attitudes have changed in the Church to many of these people, issues and situations.

Awareness is the state or ability to perceive.  If that is to happen we all need to be open to looking around – to seeing, hearing, listening and encountering, yes, but most especially, to take the risk of reaching out to understand, especially of reaching out to embrace people we think are different from us.

I want, therefore, to encourage especially those gay and lesbian people who are involved in church life, or who once were, to engage with the debates many churches are having at the current time. About an hour ago Shirley Temple Bar tweeted: ‘Sharing LGBT stories is an important step on the road to equality.’ I agree with that, and I ask you not to give up on religion and religious institutions.

It is essential that your voices and experiences are heard and listened to.  More important, it is vital that you do not let people drive you away.  The loving welcome and inclusion of you is not theirs to take away: that love, that inclusion, that welcome, that belonging are God’s gift – God’s grace – offered to you as much as to anyone else.