Conversion course

Michael Coren was a conservative Catholic who was forced to reevaluate everything he publicly stood for

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This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

My most recent death threat was an absolute corker. After questioning my sexuality, religion, and integrity, promising death and damnation, and suggesting that I was in the pay of George Soros, the freemasons and the Mossad, it concluded with, “God’s peace and love to you.” As the song says, it’s not where you start but how you finish.

I started in a place where some people who write letters like the one above regarded me as something of a hero, which would come as quite a shock to people who have read my articles or heard my broadcasts for the past six years. Until around 2013 in Canada and parts of the United States I was regarded as a champion of orthodox Roman Catholicism, and an opponent of equal marriage. I hosted a nightly television show for 16 years, had a radio show for even longer, and was published in major newspapers as well as several Catholic ones. My book Why Catholics Are Right sold almost 50,000 copies and was on the Canadian bestseller list for 11 weeks. I spoke to large crowds all over North America, and even some in the UK.

I certainly wasn’t on the hard right: I supported civil unions and legal protection for LGBQ people, I opposed the Iraq war and the death penalty, I supported the welfare state and the forgiving of third world debt. But it was these nuances, these informed subtleties, that made my overall Christian conservatism so persuasive. The fanatics could rant and be ignored; a relatively intelligent and seemingly reasonable commentator far less so. Because of that, and to my shame, I caused much more harm.

It’s all rather surprising in that I’m a half-Jewish son of a London cabbie, part of the greater Coren clan, and who after a couple of universities went to work at the New Statesman.

It was while I was working on a biography of G.K. Chesterton that I became interested in Roman Catholicism, particularly of the more traditional kind, and in 1984 at St James’s, Spanish Place, Marylebone, I was baptised and confirmed. Frank Longford was my sponsor. I became television critic for the Catholic weekly, the Tablet, and that biography of Chesterton was published. I was Catholic Man. It was as Catholic Man that I was invited to the University of Toronto in 1986 to deliver a lecture on Chesterton. A rather beautiful woman in the audience approached me, nervously or drunkenly, said that I was “amazing”, and assuming nobody would ever do this again I married her the following year. Thus more than 32 years in Canada.

There were thousands of emails, letters (some containing bodily waste), death threats, attacks on my family

My Catholicism wavered, as the ornate and cerebral church I’d found in Farm Street and Brompton Oratory certainly wasn’t replicated in Canada, even though the country is 44 per cent Catholic. When I did find a home it was among conservatives and radical traditionalists, and love-bombing and praise are difficult to resist. But I have nothing and nobody to blame other than myself. I threw myself into a contrarian defence of Catholic reaction in an inexorably liberal society.

Genuine faith is sandpaper of the soul, rubbing away at the being of faith. It hurts, it stings, but in the final analysis it should lead to a more perfect believer. I suppose that the divine carpenter began work on me, because around seven years ago I went through something like a spiritual breakdown. I cried, I couldn’t sleep, I questioned everything I had done. I’d always believed in God, always embraced the Christian message, but now it seemed that I’d got it all wrong. I was no fool, I knew biblical languages, I read voraciously, I had life experience, but it was as if I’d walked though my life with some sort of comforting theological myopia.

Then, in 2013, Uganda’s biting homophobia smashed into me. Canada’s then foreign minister, John Baird, gently criticised a Kampala official about proposed legislation to further criminalise homosexuality — even to make it a capital offence. Baird, who had been a great defender of persecuted Christians, was stridently condemned by conservative Christian groups for criticising “noble Uganda”. I was outraged at Uganda and at the treatment of Baird, and I said so on TV and in print. I was bombarded with abuse and threats, and realised that opposition to same-sex marriage wasn’t based on defence of traditional marriage but visceral dislike, even manic hatred, of gays and lesbians.

I met with gay Christian groups, who were disarmingly kind and generous, I read the works of people to whom I shall be ever grateful, such as Richard Coles, Mark Oakley and Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch. Stephen Fry, a well-known atheist of course, offered the most gracious support and encouragement. The scriptures that I assumed had underpinned homophobic Christian views seemed to blow away like dust in the Judean desert.

Jesus never mentions homosexuality, he is largely indifferent to what is regarded as sexual sin, the Hebrew Scriptures don’t mention lesbianism, their handful of references to homosexuality are either brutally anachronistic or inconsistent or not even about the issue at all. The song of the Gospels is love, its melodies are tolerance, its lyrics tell of a new and equal society.

I now combine column writing with parish work, and have never felt more complete or more Christian

So as much as I relish much within Roman Catholicism, I had to leave. I know that there are countless progressive Catholics but the teaching is still severe on moral and sexual issues and I couldn’t hide behind hypocrisy. I walked, and quietly attended Anglican services.

In April 2014, I decided to come clean, or at least have a good wash, in my weekly newspaper column. “In the past six months I have been parachuted into clouds of new realisation and empathy regarding gay issues, largely and ironically because of the angry and hateful responses of some people to my defence of persecuted gay men and women in Africa and Russia,” I wrote. “This wasn’t reasonable opposition but a tainted monomania with no understanding of humanity and an obsession with sex rather than love. I have evolved on this subject because I can no longer hide behind comfortable banalities, have realised that love triumphs judgment, and know that the conversation between Christians and gays has to transform. I am sick and tired of defining the word of God by a single and not even particularly important subject.”

That led to an outpouring of hostility. There were thousands of emails, letters (some containing bodily waste), death threats, attacks on my family, calls for my wife to leave me, accusations that I was a child abuser, a thief and a fraud, and that I was doing it all for the money. The latter was particularly odd, in that my professional career largely evaporated in the space of two weeks: five regular newspaper columns, 14 speeches, a book contract, two radio shows, and a television hosting position, all cancelled. There is none so angry as a homophobe scorned.

I should have been more intimidated, because this was income, persona and community all lost within days. But the contrary was true. I felt a sense of empowerment and invigoration. There were volumes of support as well, some of which I will never forget. But doubters too, and fair enough. Apologies aren’t sufficient. If we’re sorry, we need to show that we’re sincere, offer contrition, do penance, and try to compensate for harm done and to repair damage caused.

For six years I have written articles beyond counting to champion the LGBTQ community, especially within the church. I’ve campaigned, worked, taken more lumps that you can imagine, and done everything in my power to do what I should. But I’m a straight, white, middle-aged and middle-class man, and I would never for a moment claim that I can know what it’s like to be otherwise, or deny the pain I caused. For those who forgive, I thank you; to those who cannot, I understand you.

For me, it’s downright disrespectful to interpret the Bible as a literal guide to daily living

Christianity is a romance. And like any affair it cannot be properly quantified. We might find someone attractive or even exciting, but those qualities are far from unique. It’s something else, something beyond the formulaic that leads us to commitment. For me, true love came relatively late. After three years I decided at the ripe old age of 57 to start a Master’s of Divinity at Trinity College, University of Toronto: three years of very hard work, combined with my journalism, but I did it. Last October I was ordained a deacon in the Anglican Church of Canada. I now combine column writing with parish work, and have never felt more complete or more Christian.

As my faith has deepened over the years, I have tried to broaden the circle of inclusive love rather than guard the borders of what I once thought was Christian truth. Instead of holding the door firm, I want to hold it wide open. I have realised that Christianity is a permanent revolution, a state of being in which we believers must challenge our preconceptions every moment of every day.

The Christian belief is that the death of Jesus on the cross was the ultimate proof of love. It’s supposed to be a reciprocal relationship, a heavenly symbiosis and as such, requires specific actions on the part of the believer. Forgiveness, self-criticism and contrition, radical action to blanket the world with fairness, standing with those who need that love the most and seldom receive it.

It’s about a second chance, a lifeline thrown to humanity. It’s not about judgment but forgiveness, not about rejection but inclusion. The Jesus story is revolutionary in its most intimate sense because it dreams of peace, equality and transformation. Today, such ambitions are cynically dismissed as “virtue signalling” or the words of the “social-justice warrior”. Signal away.

The loudest voices are often the most raucous, because they are convinced that they possess exclusive and infallible truth. It’s supernatural certainty that leads to intolerance when faith should actually be a dialogue. For me, it’s downright disrespectful to interpret the Bible as a literal guide to daily living or even as the inerrant word of God. It’s much greater and more profound than that. It’s poetry, history and metaphor, as well as the revelation of God’s will and plan. It’s anything but a dry text to be referred to like some manual for the aspiring moralist.

The Gospel is about a first-century Palestinian Jew who grabbed the world and made it new. He demanded that we love God and love others as ourselves, and that we treat people the way we would want them to treat us. That’s the faith in all of its terrifying simplicity. The rest, as it were, is mere commentary. Yet that commentary has often dominated the Christian narrative in public life. Loud and cruel obsessions with sexuality and reproduction, a support for the powerful rather than the powerless, an identification with Caesar rather than the rebel Jesus.

I know that because I was there, was one of them, and have — I suppose — blood on my hands. I know that I deserve criticism. But God willing, I have put some of that right and will continue to do so.

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