In Interfaith Week, November 2015, the LGBT Foundation in Manchester held an event called ‘Believing In LGBT Young People‘, which was the inspiration for the Divine Love event I facilitated in Liverpool in LGBT History Month this February.
At this event I met a young playwright and director who was promoting her new play, One Flesh, about an evangelical Christian woman who has fallen in love with another woman and seeks the blessing of her brother, a church pastor.
This is how the play’s flyer describes her dilemma:
Esther and Natalie are in love and want the approval of those they care about. But Esther’s brother, Caleb, thinks that God doesn’t approve.
Should they play things by The Book and cancel their plans for marriage? Will faith and family determine who they love?
As the theme for this year’s LGBT History Month was Religion, Belief and Philosophy, it felt right to explore a way to bring this performance to Liverpool, to supplement the dates already planned for late February in Manchester and Salford.
In the end, the date we set for Liverpool was 5th March, after the end of LGBT History Month, but I took the opportunity at all the previous events to promote the play.
I attended the first performance at Manchester’s LGBT Centre on 27th February, and was deeply moved by the performance. Although I had seen the script, its impact didn’t become fully clear until seeing it live.
I was glad to have taken the risk of bringing this new work to Liverpool, and found them a venue at Liverpool Quaker Meeting House, which has an excellent large meeting room with a stage, perfect for a live stage play.
Seeing the play for the second time in Liverpool the following Saturday, a few aspects stood out.
The first was that the characters are not crude stereotypes – the playwright Naomi Sumner drew deeply on her own experience as a student in an evangelical church to portray three couples: Esther and Naomi; Caleb, Esther’s brother and a senior pastor in an evangelical church, and his conservative wife Leah; and Dan, a young worship leader at Caleb’s church, engaged to Hannah, who are having marriage preparation classes with Caleb and Leah. The genius of the script is that it explore what love and marriage mean to each of the couples, and the conflicts and contrasts between them.
The second was that neither ‘side’ of the debate – neither gay nor Christian, was dismissed or demonised. The importance of faith and identity to each of the characters was sensitively explored. But above all was the importance of relationship, even with people with whom we disagree. Caleb says to Leah:
You don’t have to compromise your convictions to be compassionate
This seems to me to be the key to advancing the debate and dissolving the tension between opposing sides of the debates on faith and sexuality. If we only see an opposing ideology or a stereotype, not a person with whom we are in relationship and with whom we have more in common than divides us, then each side becomes entrenched in its position behind ever-higher defences and nothing changes.
I’m pleased to say that the play was not just preaching to the choir – at the Liverpool performance there was a couple who held fundamentalist views on marriage which appeared unchanged by the performance, yet afterwards we were able to have a conversation about the need for compassion and mutual respect.
Among the audience were also a Church of England vicar and some of her parishioners. She describes herself and her congregation as ‘open evangelical’ – she wrote to me after the performance:
I loved the way it challenged you to think without providing any easy or glib answers.
It also promoted some good and relevant discussion amongst us… Lots of different issues were raised and it just reinforces for me the importance of being ourselves and not being afraid to be speak openly about it – which I know takes courage.
We have been trying to go a bit deeper with our Lent course in removing some of the masks – which is so difficult for some people, but it’s so healthy to be real.
The playwright, Naomi Sumner, is keen to explore staging the play again later this year, and is particularly interested in bringing the performance to churches who are open to exploring the issues it raises. The tour enabled this dialogue by facilitating a Q&A with Naomi (also the director) and the cast members (some of whom were also Christian).