BY POPULAR REQUEST, members of the community that meets monthly at St Bride’s Church, Liverpool for the Open Table LGBT service spent a day away again this month, six months after our first away-day last October.
As we approach the seventh anniversary of the Open Table service in July, we also reflected on what it means to be a community of LGBT people of faith.
Fourteen of us took part – some have been attending for many years, while some were new to the group. To break the ice, I asked people to write one word or short statement to reflect:
- Your most important strength or skill.
- The top strength or skill others think you have.
The range of responses show how diverse and talented we are as individuals and as a group:
- Independence / Self-reliance
- Humour / Fun
- Valuing others.
Having affirmed our strengths – those we recognise in ourselves and those others perceive in us – we reflected on our role models or icons.
We discussed what makes a ‘gay icon’, and who we as a community look to for inspiration. The concept has changed over time, as these polls from 2007 and 2014 illustrate. There is an increase in people who are lesbian or gay themselves, and a need to recognise gender diversity, in the use of LGBT as a more inclusive term than ‘gay’, as The Independent’s Rainbow List does.
We also reflected on how we too can be positive role models, and who in our spiritual tradition might be positive role models for us. Unknown to us when we booked the venue, the awayday took place on the anniversary of the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity, who were imprisoned for their faith in north Africa and died in 203 A.D. Like Ruth and Naomi in the Old Testament book of Ruth, Perpetua and Felicity are upheld by some as examples of love between women, and celebrated as the patron saints of same-sex couples.
The word ‘icon’ simply means image, and has a more positive meaning in religious tradition than ‘idol’, which is associated with idolatry, pulling our focus away from God. We learned that in the Orthodox Christian tradition, which uses images or icons of religious figures in worship, icons are said to be written, not painted. The Orthodox consider making icons more a form of prayer than art, and they believe the iconographer’s hand is guided by God. Traditional icons are visual representation of the story of the saint represented, described as ‘soul windows, entrances into the presence of the Holy’ and reminders of God’s unconditional love. We recalled that we are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), though our faith communities do not always affirm this.
We looked at modern examples of the iconographer’s art by Brother Robert Lentz OFM, an American Franciscan friar, known for incorporating contemporary social themes into his work, including people not considered saints in the traditional Christian sense. Lentz’s icons include Perpetua & Felicity, plus people of various cultures and ethnicities, and modern secular political and cultural figures, including murdered gay politician Harvey Milk.
His icon of Roman Christian martyrs Sergius and Bacchus, who are believed by some to have been united in an early Christian rite of ‘brother-making’, a type of early Christian same-sex union or blessing, was first displayed at Chicago’s Gay Pride Parade, and has become a popular symbol in the gay Christian community.
We asked those present who they value as positive role models – here are some of their responses, with links to some info about them:
- Annie Lennox
- Anthony Venn Brown
- April Ashley
- Armistead Maupin
- Barbara Glasson
- Dorothy Day
- Gareth Thomas
- Henri Nouwen
- Ian Roberts
- James Alison
- Ladies of Llangollen
- Martina Navratilova
- Pam Gold
- Peter Cookson
- Peter Tatchell
- St Melangell
- Stephen Whittle
After a well-earned break, we reflected on what it means to be part of an LGBT faith community.
We asked three questions inspired by those used by the former Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, to reflect on what a community needs to recognise and fulfil its mission:
- What is the mission of God in this place?
- What are the ministries needed to achieve this mission?
- What resources are needed to do this?
We rephrased the first question: ‘What is the mission of God in the LGBT community in Merseyside?’ with the explanation: ‘Where can you see God at work? Where is God most needed?’ Those gathered with us said:
- Safe place
- To remind the Church that we are all equal and deserve respect
- Challenging institutional homophobia & transphobia in the Church
- Within the Church to change attitudes and consciousness – God’s mission is love
- To challenge negative attitudes of other Christians e.g. same-sex marriage.
We expanded on the second question: ‘What are the ministries needed to achieve this mission?’ with the supplementary questions: ‘What can we do to fulfil this? Who do we want to help us?’ The responses:
- Strength, power and confidence to enable people to have a voice.
- Baptism & religious rites – celebration of life markers
- Education – a visible presence in the wider Church
- A counter demonstration against conservative Christian protestors at Liverpool Pride, with ordained ministers, inspired by the Marin Foundation’s ‘I’m Sorry’ campaign, apologising for prejudice against the LGBT community in the name of Christianity.
The third question: ‘What resources are needed to carry out this mission?’ is about what practical steps we need to take and what support we would need to achieve what we identified in the first two questions:
- Supportive bishop
- Open Table
- LGBT public speakers
- Booklet of LGBT people’s faith stories
- Outreach workers/ trainers
- T-shirts / Placards / Banners
- Magic wand & endless supply of fairy dust!
We also added three supplementary questions:
What’s the smallest step we could take?
- Be true to ourselves
- Attend church
- Come out to someone
- Counter-demo at Liverpool Pride
What’s the most radical step we could take?
- Don’t be silent.
- Be completely out in all aspects of life
- Demand to be served by God’s servants
- Represent Christ as an LGBT icon
What would we need to do differently?
- Celebrate rather than commiserate
- LGBT religious rites and life markers
We broke for a bring-and-share lunch, including an amazing rainbow cake made by one of our number (see tweet below), followed by a period of quiet time for reflection, sharing and walking among the nearby sand dunes.
— St Bride’s Liverpool (@StBridesLpool) March 7, 2015
During this time we invited people to reflect on three questions about our own identity:
- Who do others say you are?
- Who do you say you are?
- Who does God say you are?
Plus some questions about what it means to be part of an LGBT faith community:
What do you value about being part of:
- the LGBT community?
- a faith community?
- Open Table?
How does being part of Open Table help you?
What do you bring to Open Table?
After the break we came together to share people’s responses:
Who do others say you are?
- Many things both positive & negative
- Respecting & loving that I live the life I choose
- A sinner
- Evil mad man
- Independent businesswoman
- Honest & caring
- Full of life
- Mother, daughter
- Loyal , hard worker
Who do you say you are?
- Self-doubting / Uncertain
- At ease in my own skin
Who does God say you are?
- Precious & honoured in His sight
- His child/disciple /hands & voice in the world
- On a learning curve
- Christian with a faith
- A person
- Adopted into this family
- Opening of my heart
What do you value about being part of the LGBT community?
- I can be myself
- Sense of belonging
- Being with others in similar situations
- Valuable, unique culture & history
What do you value about being part of a faith community?
- Exploring my spirituality
- Special ‘quiet time’ with God
- Sharing faith
- Sharing in life’s journey
- Not a lot at present – place where I’ve been hurt
- Direction for my life
- To be together
- Commitment to good
- Sense of belonging
What do you value about being part of Open Table?
- Being in a safe, loving space with other LGBT people
- A warm monthly welcome
- An authentic vehicle for exploration of faith
- To be within a space of faith without discrimination
- Not able to attend regularly, a great disadvantage
- Being able to belong is vitally important
- Upheld in prayer
- Honesty welcomes you
- A safe nice place
- Brings my faith & sexuality together
- Helps me to accept who I am
- Completely At peace with God and others
How does being part of Open Table help you?
- Become more honest/authentic
- One space where I can be the whole of who I am
- Able to be who I am
- Being affirmed
- Meeting new people
- Complete honesty – just be yourself
- I can be me without fear of discrimination
- To follow my faith
- Excitement about spirituality
What do you bring to Open Table?
- Listening ear
- Poor singing!
- Openness, warmth & curiosity
- Divine feminine
We evaluated the day with four questions:
What did you find valuable about the day?
- Conversational lunch
- People’s honesty
- Space to be with other LGBT people of faith
- Relaxed atmosphere
- Sharing food
- Sharing experiences
- Spending the day as myself J
- Safe space
- Silence/ Quiet time
- Meeting the group
- Introduction to a new community
- Being with others who are like minded
- Time and space to share and reflect
- Excellent venue
What did you learn?
- More about myself
- Other people’s stories
- Not alone in my feelings
- A little/a lot about each other
- Stories of saints and LGBT icons within faith
What would have made it better?
- More time / longer?
- Overnight / weekend residential
- Some group meditation
- It felt like we were covering a lot
- Less things, more depth & periods of quiet meditation
What could you do to help/support/develop this community?
- Attend more
- Greater presence
- Recording people’s oral histories
- Offer a session at the next retreat
- Awayday in Llangollen
As reflected in the feedback, we did try to cover a lot in just a few hours, but it felt important to take this opportunity to reflect on where we have come from and where we are going, so we may celebrate our seventh anniversary in July with a deeper appreciation for all that we are, all we have achieved, and all we can aspire to, with the help of God.
As requested, we are now looking into a day out at Llangollen in Wales, and an overnight or weekend retreat later this year or early next year.
We ended with a simple Eucharist in the chapel at St Joseph’s, drawing on the themes of the day, with this simple, powerful affirmation and blessing:
As we leave this place,
we leave knowing that we are God’s own children.
All that we have and all that we are is a sacred trust from God.
From this moment on, let us live with gratitude for who we are and commit ourselves to honour each person as a beloved child of God.