A very queer* time – Bishop goes viral, Quest continues, Love in the dock, God loves hugs & Michael’s mates

A sign I made for our church group in the Liverpool Pride march

*Queer – originally meaning odd, used as a term of homophobic abuse, reclaimed by activists as a defiant act of liberation, now interpreted to mean radical transgression of norms – see my comments on Keith Sharpe’s book The Gay Gospels below.

IT’S BEEN an extraordinary couple of weeks since my last post about the Bishop of Liverpool’s visit to the monthly LGBT communion service I run with my partner in Liverpool.

Enough for several blog posts, in fact. But I’ll stick to the highlights:

 


Bishop of Liverpool Paul Bayes with St Bride’s LGBT Ministry Facilitator Warren Hartley

Publicity for the Bishop’s visit:

I adapted the text of my last post into a media release, which went out to a number of publications – it appeared in the local paper, not once, but twice, and a website for the city’s LGBT community.

The Church Times, which calls itself ‘the world’s leading Anglican newspaper’, included two of the photos we shared with captions about the anniversary service alongside a range of interviews about a session of the Church of England’s Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission and Human Sexuality.

My report on the bishop’s visit had more than 1000 views in a week, the fastest traffic I’ve had in nearly three years of running this blog. It also had 200 views on the Modern Church website which I edit.

It was also picked up by other website on opposite ends of the Anglican spectrum – the conservative Anglican Mainstream, which calls itself ‘an information resource for orthodox Anglicans’, who were most concerned that the Bishop didn’t explicitly mention the Bible in his reflection on the readings he had selected for the service, and Thinking Anglicans, which ‘proclaims a tolerant, progressive and compassionate Christian spirituality’. More than three times as many people clicked on the link from the Thinking Anglicans blog than from the Anglican Mainstream site (193 compared to 60).

Overall the feedback has been very positive – as a result of the publicity we also heard from a vicar who runs an LGBT-inclusive monthly communion service in Manchester, who wrote:

That is a lovely report. We’re borrowing the term ‘Open Table’ for our monthly LGBT Communion (hope thats OK and that you see that as a compliment!). – last Sunday of the month at 5pm from September.

We are meeting this vicar shortly to explore informal links with you, and perhaps share ideas. Plus last month the first Open Table service took place at a church in Warrington – at this rate it could become a ‘franchise’ of LGBT affirming worship communities – we’ll need a regional conference before long!

In other news…


Quest conference speakers Keith Sharpe and Ruth Hunt

Quest Conference: ‘The Bible – Friend Or Foe’

The weekend after Bishop Paul’s visit, we attended the annual conference of Quest, the UK national society for LGBT Catholics. I ran the local Quest group and held monthly meetings for five years, until I left the Catholic Church for reasons I have explained here.

I haven’t been to a Quest conference since before I left and stepped down as convenor of the Liverpool group. It was good to be back.

My main reason for going this year was to hear one of the speakers, Ruth Hunt, the chief executive of Stonewall, the UK LGBT rights charity, since July 2014. She spoke about own faith journey, Stonewall and her role in it, and her vision for future campaigning, including working with the Church of England. But her most revealing comment was:

It is more challenging to come out as a Catholic than as a lesbian.

She inadvertently revealed her Catholic faith earlier in her career at Stonewall when she answered a call from a journalist in response to the news that the Archbishop of Westminster had cancelled the ‘Soho Masses’ for LGBT Catholics and moved them to a new venue. So when she was promoted as head of the organisation she received harsh condemnation from online commentators who compared her role to a Nazi running a charity to support Jews.

Quest national committee member Terry Weldon wrote of her personal testimony:

It has often been observed that for LGBT Catholics, with the rapidly increasing acceptance of sexual diversity it can be more difficult nowadays to come out as Catholic in the gay community, than as gay in the Catholic community. This was certainly the case for Ruth. She came out as gay at an early age, was publicly known as lesbian at Oxford, and has been publicly visible as such throughout her professional career. Meanwhile, her Catholic faith has always been important to her, but been a more private part of her life – until a few years ago she was inadvertently “outed” as Catholic. The hatred and opposition she then received from some LGBT activists she compared with the homophobia that LGBT (people) decry when directed against themselves by Christians.

It was a salutory reminder that those among who have been demonised for identifying with a minority group need to rise above the temptation to dehumanise others in return, as this entrenches our positions and perpetuates the cycle of prejudice.

Ruth spoke of the subtle diplomacy, or ‘nudge culture’ Stonewall lobbyists have used to campaign for change at the highest levels of Government. Though its methods have been controversial, Stonewall has had substantial successes with the 30 year plan for legislative change its founders created when it was established in 1989, such as the equalisation of the age of consent and the end of the ban on LGBT people in the armed forces. Some change has happened more quickly than expected, notably the reform of the marriage laws in England, Scotland and Wales (Northern Ireland, though first in the UK to grant civil partnerships,  still does not permit same-sex marriage).

Such success would have been unlikely if they had adopted the more ‘direct action’ approach of campaigners like Peter Tatchell and Outrage, who has threatened to ‘out’ gay bishops to expose the hypocrisy of those in power. He too is exceptionally dedicated to human rights campaigning and has gone further than others in championing the cause, including attempting a citizen’s arrest of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe for human rights abuses, and being beaten and arrested in Russia for protesting a Government ban on a Pride march in the city. The injuries he suffered on both these occasions led to brain injuries which forced him to resign as a potential Parliamentary candidate. Both approaches are needed in the campaign for full equality.

LGBT Catholics and other Christians may be able to learn from the ‘nudge culture’ of Stonewall to affect change in church institutions. Stonewall is committed to being part of the solution, and is already working with the LGBTI Anglican Coalition and other faith groups to make this happen.

Ruth shared that while substantial legislative change has been achieved, it is only fully effective for those in positions of privilege – white, assertive people working for major employers. Due to barriers of poverty, education, social class, ethnicity and religion, it is still not true that all LGBT people can feel safe and equal. Hence Stonewall has introduced a new vision:

Stonewall believes in a world where all people, everywhere have the right to be themselves and be accepted without exception. And until all lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people can do this, whether in their place of worship, in sport, at work, at school, overseas, we still have work to do.

Stonewall has also been controversial for its lack of engagement with transgender rights issues, but earlier this year, Stonewall announced plans to rectify this following consultation with more than 700 trans people.

I was also pleased to note that Quest is making more effort to be inclusive of gender diversity, as it was not in my time as a local group convenor. The theme of next year’s conference is: ‘Male and Female God Created Them’, with keynote speaker Tina Beardsley, author of The Transsexual Person is My Neighbour: Pastoral Guidelines for Christian Clergy, Pastors and Congregations. I intend to be there – watch this space.

The main speaker at the Quest Conference last month was Keith Sharpe, author of The Gay Gospels: good news for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people. There isn’t space or time to do justice to his work here, though it’s a theme I am likely to return to.

His most interesting points for me were his responses to these questions:

  • Was Jesus Christ queer?
  • Is God queer?
  • How do we read the Bible as a queer text?

Keith uses a definition of ‘queer’ commonly used in academia, which I quoted at the top of the page:

  • originally meaning odd, used as a term of homophobic abuse, reclaimed by activists as a defiant act of liberation, now interpreted to mean radical transgression of norms.

which is not confined to, though not excluding, diverse sexual orientations and gender identities.

Keith argued persuasively that, in the sense of liberation and radical transgression of norms, the answer to all three questions is a resounding YES!

  • Jesus: born into an outcast family, stigmatised, revolutionary liberation activist, dissolving the binary categorisations between Jew and Gentile, human and divine, death and life.
  • God: ‘comes out’ as god of love in Jesus, not the ‘malevolent bully‘ of the Old Testament as caricatured by Richard Dawkins.
  • The Bible: Keith argues for the validity of reading the text through the lens of this radical, transgressive God and Christ, as the overall direction of the whole Bible is from exclusion to inclusion. Jesus’ invitation to fullness of life, ‘I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full’ (John 10:10) is not a meek submission to destructive normalities, but a focus on what uplifts us and validates our lives.

Keith compared ‘queer’ readings of the Bible and theology to slaves who were willing to be Christians though it was the instrument of their oppression, because they read the stories in ways which reflected their experience and gave them hope. He sees this as the invitation to LGBT Christians, because God chose transgressive human experience to include everybody, especially those at the margins of society, who became central figures of our faith tradition.

If my summary has not done Keith’s exposition justice, perhaps this video he showed us will help (4 minutes):

Keith went on to explore claims about the sexual orientation and gender identity of Jesus which I, and others, felt were perhaps overstated given the evidence available and the dangers of projecting modern cultural assumptions onto a radically different context. I will reserve comment on these until I have read his book.

You can read Terry Weldon’s report on the Quest conference here.


Leading our church group in the Liverpool Pride march, with affirming and apologetic messages. PHOTO: Liverpool Echo

Liverpool Pride 2015: Love Is No Crime

Fresh back from the conference, it was straight into final preparations for Liverpool Pride, which this year took the theme ‘Love Is No Crime’, in recognition of legislative change in the UK and the need to support our brothers and sisters around the world where LGBT people are marginalised, punished, attacked and killed, either by the state or people’s own communities.

I took part part in three events:


Love In The Dock:

I have written before about the background to this event, which grew from a desire to have an inclusive faith event as part of the first Liverpool Pride festival in 2010. From tentative beginnings, the event, and the group which organises it, has grown beyond expectations.

Around 120 people attended last Thursday’s event, subtitles ‘A compendium of contemplation and celebration for your delight’, featuring a sketches on the theme ‘Love In The Dock’, in which a judge heard evidence and ruled ‘Love is not a crime!’ The evening was cabaret-style – guests sat at café tables to watch the performance, share experience of traditions from different faiths, listen to live music performed by Liverpool LGBT Choir, and share a meal together. Here are some tweets from the event:


Allies from St Bride’s Church, Liverpool marched with us and apologised for what some Christians have done to the LGBT community. PHOTO: Pete Carr

Pride March & Stall:

For the last five years, I have marched with the LGBT youth group I ran. As I am no longer working with them, I ‘youth worked’ a group of people from the church my partner and I support to engage with the spirit of Pride in a deeper way this year. A group from St Bride’s Liverpool has marched in Liverpool Pride almost every year, carrying a banner and walking alongside other inclusive faith groups. This year we marched separately, with more people than ever, and a desire to be part of the ‘I’m Sorry’ campaign, which involves Christians apologising to the LGBTQ community for the ways they have harmed them. I took inspiration from hearing Andrew Marin of the Marin Foundation speak at the Open Church conference in London about his work of reconciliation between Christian and LGBTQ communities in Chicago, where the I’m Sorry campaign began in 2010. When other members of our community spoke passionately about it on a retreat day earlier this year, I knew we had to find a way to try it.

Christian Voice group protests at Liverpool Pride. PHOTO: Jonathan Jelfs

The aim of the I’m Sorry campaign is for Christians to stand by the side of the road displaying messages of affirmation and apology so that those in the Pride march can see them. If a negative Christian protest is present, as there is each year in Liverpool, the intention would be to offer non-violent resistance, to stand nearby, perhaps with backs to the negative protestors, as a barrier between them and the negative demonstration. I explored a roadside presence this year, but I had not appreciated the amount of council and police bureaucracy involved, plus only four of us felt ready to do it, so we decided instead to march as one large group, carrying messages of both affirmation and apology.

The messages of apology included ‘We are sorry for what Christians have done to LGBT people’ (pictured above), and ‘I’m sorry for Christian homophobia & transphobia’.

The messages of affirmation included ‘God loves you, no matter who you love’, and ‘God Loves Hugs’, my twist on the infamous ‘God Hates Fags’ slogan from the Westboro Baptist Church. It would make a good hashtag – spread the word! #GodLovesHugs 🙂

Throughout the day, we had a stall in the community market area, which we aimed to create as a sacred space of welcome and affirmation, a taste of what we hope people will experience if they come to our church, or to any of the other inclusive faith communities we promote as part of the Spectrum of Spirituality network of LGBTQI people of faith and the groups which support them. On the stall we invited people to write on a brightly coloured star with a wish, a prayer, a thank you or a message of love. 75 people did.

On Sunday morning we shared them at St Bride’s morning service, where we placed them on the prayer table and altar as we celebrated the Eucharist. I am sharing a selection of these messages on the new Open Table Twitter account this week. They range from prayers for world peace to a wish to meet Bruno Mars, so we couldn’t promise that all would be fulfilled! Some were more poignant, like this one:

I hope one day I am happy with who I am.

We hope we can be part of the answer to that prayer for this person, and others who express the same desire.


Michael Causer (9 October 1989 – 2 August 2008)

Michael Causer Foundation vigil:

The date of Liverpool Pride was chosen to be the closest Saturday to the anniversary of Michael Causer’s death. Michael Causer died seven years.ago because of serious injuries from a homophobic attack. You can read his story here. At the vigil in his memory, and for all victims of hate crime, in the city’s Stanley Street Quarter on Sunday, all present were asked to make a pledge to tackle prejudice and hate crime in the coming year, and to share their support on social media, using the hashtag #ImMichaelsMate. Here’s mine:

You can read a report on the vigil here.

I was privileged to be one of the founding trustees of the Michael Causer Foundation, which I supported for three years. I have written earlier about my motivation for this work. Now I am no longer working directly with children and young people, but I still have opportunities to deliver LGBT awareness training, and I am particularly interested in bringing together my work in Christian and other faith communities with my work in the LGBT community to be part of the reconciliation and healing process that is so needed.

So my pledge for next year’s Liverpool Pride is to build on the success of our march and stall this year with a roadside presence as part of the ‘I’m Sorry’ campaign. And while we’re about it, let’s not forget – #GodLovesHugs!

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