The leader of Exodus International, a Christian ministry that worked to help people repress same-sex attraction, has apologized to the gay community for inflicting "years of undue suffering." He plans to close the organization while launching a new effort to promote reconciliation.
"The church has waged the culture war, and it's time to put the weapons down," Alan Chambers told The Associated Press on Thursday, hours after announcing his decision at Exodus' annual conference and posting his apology online.
"While there has been so much good at Exodus, there has also been bad," Chambers said at the conference. "We've hurt people."
Based in Orlando, Fla., Exodus was founded 37 years ago and claimed 260 member ministries around the U.S. and abroad. It offered to help conflicted Christians rid themselves of unwanted homosexual inclinations through counseling and prayer, infuriating gay rights activists in the process.
Exodus had seen its influence wane in recent years as mainstream associations representing psychiatrists and psychologists rejected its approach. However, the idea that gays could be "converted" to heterosexuality through prayer persists among some evangelicals and fundamentalists.
The announcement that Exodus would close was not a total surprise. Last year, Chambers — who is married to a woman but has spoken openly about his own sexual attraction to men — said he was trying to distance his ministry from the idea that gays' sexual orientation can be permanently changed or "cured."
In his statement Thursday, Chambers said the board had decided to close Exodus and form a new ministry, which he referred to as reducefear.org.
He told the AP that the new initiative would seek to promote dialogue among those who've been on opposite sides in the debate over gay rights.
"We want to see bridges built, we want peace to be at the forefront of anything we do in the future," he said.
Gay rights activists welcomed Chambers' apology, while reiterating their belief that Exodus had caused great damage.
"This is a welcome first step in honestly addressing the harm the organization and its leaders have caused," said Sharon Groves, director of the Human Rights Campaign's religion and faith program. "Now we need them to take the next step of leadership and persuade all other religious-based institutions that they got it wrong."
Chambers said the decisions announced this week had been under consideration by Exodus' board for a year. Regarding the timing, he said it was not linked to rulings from the Supreme Court on same-sex marriage that are expected within the next week.
"I hold to a biblical view that the original intent for sexuality was designed for heterosexual marriage," he said. "Yet I realize there are a lot of people who fall outside of that, gay and straight ... It's time to find out how we can pursue the common good."
He said there were many influences on his personal decision. Among them, he said, was the interfaith work overseas of the U.S.-based Christian relief group World Vision, which he praised for its cooperation with Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist groups to aid at-risk children.
Truth Wins Out, another group that had been harshly critical of Exodus, praised Chambers for "integrity and authenticity."
"It takes a real man to publicly confront the people whose lives were destroyed by his organization's work, and to take real, concrete action to begin to repair that damage," said the group's associate director, Evan Hurst.
However, Hurst noted that some of Exodus' former followers — disenchanted by Chambers' evolution — had formed a new group called the Restored Hope Network, which calls itself an "ex-gay ministry" and continues to promote the idea that gays can be converted to heterosexuality.
That group's board members, gathering in Oklahoma City for their annual meeting, issued a statement saying they "grieved" Chambers' decision.
"It feels like the unnecessary death of a dear friend," said the board, vowing to carry on with Exodus' original mission.
Chambers was criticized by Regina Griggs, executive director of Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays & Gays. Her group had been a member of Exodus before resigning four years ago, and it's now part of the Restored Hope Network.
Griggs said Chambers was entitled to decide what was best for himself, but shouldn't be discrediting the efforts of others to help people who were uncomfortable with same-sex attraction.
"We do not owe an apology to the gay community," she said. "Nobody's ever forced to change. That's an individual's right."
Among those commending Chambers was California state Sen. Ted Lieu, author of a recently passed law seeking to ban licensed counselors from trying to turn gay teens straight. The law has been put on hold by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals pending resolution of lawsuits challenging it.
"In the past, Exodus International practiced the quackery known as reparative therapy or various versions of gay conversion therapy," Lieu said. "Exodus International's mea culpa and shut-down puts another nail in the coffin for reparative therapy."