Keeping faith in Pride

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TONIGHT I was invited to share my story at the local meeting of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, which describes itself as:

a UK-based international charity which challenges homophobia and transphobia, especially within the Church and faith based organisations, as well as working to create and praying for an inclusive church.

The timing seemed apt, as I planned to speak about our civil partnership last year being the first to be registered on religious premises in the UK, and to encourage members to write to their MPs to express their views on marriage equality, as the newly proposed legislation was published and read in Parliament for the first time today.

Unfortunately the weather had other ideas, and as the snow fell horizontally on the windscreen of the taxi that took us to the meeting, it became clear that only the hardiest souls would venture out to join us.

There were four of us: a United Reformed Church minister, a Catholic who runs an ecumenical worship group, my Anglican partner and I (loosely affiliated Christian, aka Jack With No Box). All of them had heard my script in one way or another so we decided to postpone it to another day and instead plan for this year’s Spectrum of Spirituality event, an interfaith celebration on the eve of Liverpool Pride, and the only official Pride event of its kind in the UK.

The idea for an LGBT Pride interfaith event began with inspiration from the Manchester Gay Christian Group which hosts a Eucharist on the Friday evening of the Manchester Pride Big Weekend each year. The LGBT Christian groups in Liverpool discussed doing something similar as a ‘fringe’ event to our city’s first official Pride event in 2010.

Then we heard that the Liverpool Pride planning committee were looking for partners to facilitate an interfaith service on the eve of the festival. One of the key principles of Liverpool Pride is to be inclusive, which means including LGBT people of all faiths and none.

Liverpool Pride includes a programme of events around the main festival celebrating LGBT life and culture, with a strong Liverpool identity. As Liverpool’s history has been strongly shaped, for better or worse, by the faith of its citizens, and the history of the LGBT community is marked by the influence of faith communities on society, it is enlightened and empowering of Liverpool Pride to support an LGBT interfaith event. It recognises that, in spite of the prejudice we experience from some members of religious organisations, some LGBT people are able to stand firm in their faith and not be bound by dogma that would exclude them.

So we formed an Interfaith planning committee of equals, with coordinators but no one person  in charge, working together in a spirit of cooperation and inclusivity. At the time I ran the local branch of  Quest, a group for LGBT Catholics, and my partner organised (and still does) Open Table, a monthly ecumenical LGBT service at St Bride’s Anglican church, so we ended up taking coordinator roles for the first two years, taking a break last year because of our civil partnership and honeymoon.

The name of the Interfaith group, ‘Spectrum of Spirituality’ was inspired by the rainbow.

As well as being a symbol of LGBT pride and diversity, the rainbow is an ancient symbol of hope in the mythology and faith of many cultures. Light is also a powerful symbol in many religions, and science teaches us that white light is made up of the colours of the rainbow – the spectrum – which can be seen when a beam of light is refracted through a triangular prism. As the triangle is also a symbol for the LGBT community because pink and black triangles were used to identify us during the Holocaust, we felt the image of the spectrum was a rich metaphor for what we hope to achieve – a celebration of our unity and diversity. Hence Liverpool Spectrum of Spirituality was born (see the logo at the top of the page).

We believe this event is vital, in every sense of the word. It is urgently needed, absolutely necessary, performing an essential function to help achieve Liverpool Pride’s aims:

  • to engage, involve and empower members of the LGBT communities in Liverpool;
  • to foster greater knowledge, understanding and acceptance of LGBT communities by the wider population of Liverpool with a view to promoting better relations within communities.

Spectrum of Spirituality also aims to be vital in the sense of being ‘full of life, full of spirit’.

We understand that many LGBT people are suspicious of, or hostile to, faith groups because of the judgement and rejection they have may have experienced or heard about.  While some faith traditions have rejected LGBT people, other traditions have valued them as shamans or ‘two-spirited’ sages and healers. We believe from our own experiences that it is possible to have a healthy and integrated sexuality and spirituality, and we aim to showcase communities that welcome LGBT people by creating safe, positive and inclusive spaces to explore and experience faith.

The biggest challenge in forming an LGBT interfaith group and planning a service has been to enable disparate groups of people with different beliefs and identities to work together for a common goal in a meaningful way. It has also been difficult to get some faith leaders to be involved or to support the initiative if their tradition is negative about LGBT people, and finding LGBT people from different faiths is hard as they are often hidden because of the prejudice they face in their communities. We feared we might face some resistance from members of the LGBT community who have had a negative experience of faith groups, but so far this has not really been the case.

We have received great support from some faith communities, such as the Quakers, who agreed to host the service in their city centre meeting house for free. However, we have experienced unease from an interfaith group which stated that it is not their ‘area of expertise’ because it is an LGBT community event. We were looking for their interfaith expertise, not their LGBT expertise, as between us we have plenty of that!

Our aim each year has been to celebrate with music, poems, readings and prayers from faith traditions including Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Humanist, Jewish, Muslim, Native American, Pagan, Quaker and Unitarian. We aim to create a multi-sensory experience – not just visuals and sound, but also smell (last year people were invited to bring a flower, to create a fragrant centrepiece for the service), and touch (people are invited to contribute to a communal artwork), and taste (the service is followed by a healthy vegetarian buffet and cupcakes!)

The centrepiece of the service is a hexagonal table draped in a specially made LGBT Freedom Flag. In the first year we themed each segment on the symbolism of each of the flag’s colours:

  • Red = Life
  • Orange = Healing
  • Yellow = Sun
  • Green = Nature
  • Blue = Harmony
  • Purple = Spirit

The Quaker Meeting House hexagonal table dressed in the rainbow flag to represent the spectrum of diverse beliefs and traditions

During the meal after the service we invite people to meet one another on the common ground the event creates between us, and to view art created by local amateur and professional artists in response to the theme of the service, which derived from the theme of Liverpool Pride for that year.

Our original hope was that the interfaith service would become an annual event, integral to the strong Liverpool identity of the city’s official Pride festival. We also felt the potential to lead to other interfaith events, and to become a network of LGBT people of faith and the groups which support them.

At first we had no idea how many to expect – we thought we were being optimistic when we catered food for 60 people – in fact 93 people turned up! Thanks to the generosity of the caterer, all were well fed with no need for miracles!

Attendance in 2011 and 2012 has been around the same number, with some of the same people and some new faces each year.

Feedback from the first year helped us see that our hopes were more than fulfilled:

‘One of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had.’

and:

‘What a wonderful surprise this evening has been!’

Other words that recurred throughout the feedback:

‘Peacefulness’, ‘oneness’, ‘diversity’, ‘welcoming’, ‘powerful’, ‘togetherness’, ‘relaxed’, ‘freshness’, ‘beauty’, ‘inclusivity’,  ‘joy’, ‘love’, ‘acceptance’, ‘inspiring’, ‘moving’, ‘brave’.

It was not just an event for LGBT people either – almost half of those who filled in feedback forms said they were heterosexual and cisgender.

Each year’s participants were left wanting more – local people asked for it to become a regular event, maybe even quarterly, and visitors from Manchester requested a similar event as part of their city’s Pride!

And while it meant a lot to individuals who took part, some felt it had a greater significance:

‘It gave me a personal message for my own journey and gave Liverpool something to be proud of.’

Some expressed a desire to develop the initiative regionally and nationally.

Rev. Tim Meadows, one of the coordinators, explained this unique achievement:

‘One of the gifts of the LGBT community to the world is our ability to find common ground in the midst of divisions rooted in religious belief and no religious belief.’

and:

‘While we read daily of religious conflict, Liverpool Spectrum of Spirituality comes along and models a way to celebrate our kinship with regard to justice, peace, hope, and love. I do not think people in power know how to do that. Only a people who live on the fringe of most religious cultures could that.’

Members of the Spectrum of Spirituality group also walk together in the march on the main day of the festival and have a stall promoting all the groups involved throughout the day.

Join ‘Spectrum of Spirituality’ on Facebook for more on interfaith celebration and participation in Liverpool Pride!

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