THIS is the reflection I gave for the eighth birthday of Open Table @ St Bride’s Liverpool on 17th July 2016, a celebration of what we have achieved in the past year, and looking forward to Liverpool Pride on 30th July with the theme: ‘Liverpool Icons’. I will follow this post with a report on our presence at this year’s Liverpool Pride.
So, here we all are, together to celebrate the eight birthday of Open Table. When Warren and I first came to support this new initiative from the local group of Changing Attitude, which campaigns for full LGBTI inclusion in the Anglican Communion, we couldn’t have dreamed that we’d be here today with so many others, commissioned by the Archdeacon of Liverpool to support the life and growth of this community for a further three years.
Eight and a half years ago, Warren and I met at an LGBT Christian group, and soon became a couple. We shared a common interest in exploring issues around sexuality, gender identity and faith, so in spring 2008, we attended the re-launch of the local Changing Attitude group.
Within a few months, the idea of a monthly Eucharist for the LGBT community was born, and it began in July 2008. At the time I was on the committee of the local branch of Quest, the group for LGBT Catholics – from the start there was a commitment to Open Table being an ecumenical and inclusive service – the name ‘open table’ is another way of describing the practice of open communion, which means all are welcome to share in the Eucharist, not just those considered to be in ‘good standing’ by the faith traditions they come from.
Sadly, the Changing Attitude group didn’t continue but, largely thanks to the commitment and organisation of Warren, and the hospitality and support of St Bride’s Church, the service has continued and grown.
Even one year ago we did not know how it would grow. We now call ourselves Open Table Liverpool in recognition of the achievement of Pam Gold, who used to run the Evangelical Fellowship for Lesbian and Gay Christians, and often came to worship with us here. Last July she set up Open Table Warrington at St John’s URC – her energy and commitment has taken the Open Table vision to new places. Later this year she is moving to the Isle of Man, and has already arranged an Open Table service there, which started last month. She has also received enquiries about starting Open Table in St Helens, and Leeds.
As a result of the launch of Open Table Warrington, which has just celebrated its first birthday, and the publicity Open Table had for the seventh birthday celebrations led by the Bishop of Liverpool, Paul Bayes, a similar inclusive community at St Chrysostom’s CofE in Manchester called ‘Communion’ contacted us to asked if they could use the name Open Table when they relaunched last September. Then an ecumenical partnership in North Wales began meeting to explore using the Open Table model for regular services along the North Wales coast. In early July, 24 members of all four active Open Table communities met in Warrington for an Appreciating Open Table day, to help us discern our core values, how we share our vision, and where we want to go in the next three years. This will help us to support the emerging Open Table communities which have approached us, including Wigan and Sefton, London and Birmingham, Lincolnshire and Oxfordshire.
Bishop Paul has made several public statements in support of a more inclusive church, notably his reflection here at Open Table last July, when he charged the community with a mission to give ‘the love that you share, and the openness that you manifest’ as a gift to the wider church, which struggles to receive it:
‘God has called you to be people to proclaim his love in a nation and in a church which is moving so quickly in terms of what it thinks and how it acts towards (LGBTQIA people)… that you can have a world where there is legal acceptance and homophobic violence all at once.’
Around forty people took part in the anniversary celebration, in which Bishop Paul presented a print of a modern icon called Urban Mission by Yvonne Bell, which shows Jesus in a city among a diverse group of people, framed by the words from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah:
“To bring good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken, to proclaim liberty to captives, and comfort those who mourn.”
If you weren’t with us last year, his talk is still available online here:
As a result of these statements, Bishop Paul contributed to a book of essays by prominent Anglicans from the Evangelical tradition which was sent to members of the Church of England’s governing body, the General Synod before they held ‘Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission and Sexuality’ in early July. As an appendix, the editor included a brief history of Open Table. Warren was also invited to represent Open Table at the regional Shared Conversations, and wrote a moving reflection about his experience which you can read here.
So as you can see, it’s been quite a year!
Open Table continues to grow and include more people, and together we are learning all the time. We began as a group of mainly lesbian, gay and bisexual folk, as many such groups do, and as we have strived to create a safe, sacred space for all people to encounter the infinite, unconditional, intimate love of God, so we have welcomed many more on the diverse spectrums of sexual orientation and gender identity, and can now proudly state our aim to be:
an ecumenical Christian worship community which offers a warm welcome to people who are: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer / Questioning, Intersex, Asexual (LGBTQIA) and all who believe in an inclusive church.
Open Table shouldn’t need to exist. Our vision is of a world where LGBTQIA people are fully included within our church traditions and communities. Until then, we will continue to nurture safe, sacred, inclusive space where LGBTQIA Christians can ‘come as you are’.
Thank you all for your support. It is such a privilege to serve as the facilitators of Open Table at St Bride’s Liverpool. Meeting and worshipping with you all has been a great blessing for us both and we look forward to many more years of deepening community and spirituality together with you.
We’re also looking forward to being a positive Christian presence at Liverpool Pride again this year.
Our city’s free, inclusive, visible festival for LGBT+ communities and allies, is back for its seventh year on Saturday 30th July. We plan to march as a group representing Open Table and St Bride’s and have a stall in the Community Zone.
In a few moments I’ll ask you for your reflections on how we can respond to this year’s theme for Liverpool Pride, which is ‘icons’. Here are a few thoughts to get you started.
First, why do we need to be present at Pride? Why have a march and festival? In our reading today from the letter to the Ephesians (Ephesians 2:8-10 ,14-22), we heard how we are saved by God’s grace because of our faith, as God’s gift, ‘not something you did that you can be proud of.’ So what does taking part in Pride mean for us as an Open Table community?
Pride in this context does not mean the ‘deadly sin’, the desire to be more important or attractive than others, failure to acknowledge the good work of others, and excessive love of self above a ‘right’ relationship with God. The English word ‘pride’ comes from the Old French for ‘brave’ or ‘valiant’. The sense of ‘self-importance’ and ‘arrogance’, not found in Old French, might reflect the Anglo-Saxons’ opinion of the Norman knights who called themselves ‘proud’.
Pride for our community is the opposite of shame – a courageous affirmation of self in what can sometimes be a hostile environment. It is not about being more important, but about campaigning for equality and celebrating the diversity of human sexuality and gender – part of the image of God in which each of us is uniquely created.
A group from Open Table and St Bride’s has marched in Liverpool Pride almost every year, walking alongside other inclusive faith groups. Each year there is a negative protest against the Pride march by a group called Christian Voice, which some in our communities think is the only Christian voice on issues of gender and sexuality. Last year we marched as a large group, carrying messages of affirmation of God’s love, and apology to our community for what some Christians have done in the name of God, but not in our name.
Throughout the day, we had a stall in the Community Zone, 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 an Open Table gathering. 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. In the Sunday morning service at St Bride’s the following day, we placed them on the prayer table and altar as we celebrated the Eucharist. I also shared a selection of these messages on the Open Table Twitter account. 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:
‘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 many others who express similar desires in our community.
Secondly, this year we need to think about how we respond to the theme of ‘icons’. The word ‘icon’ has a particular meaning in both Christian and LGBTQIA communities.
In our Open Table away day in March last year, we discussed what makes a ‘gay icon’, and who we as a community look to for inspiration. The concept has changed over time – we looked at polls from 2007 and 2014, which showed an increase in people who identify themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual, 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 of influential members of our community (which began in 2000 as The Pink List) now 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 away day, it 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, that is anything which we choose or allow to pull our primary focus away from God. 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 re-tellings 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. In our reading today from the letter to the Ephesians (Ephesians 2:8-10 ,14-22), we heard how
we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things.
Other New Testament revisions translate this as ‘God’s masterpiece’. The translation I am most familiar with renders it as ‘God’s work of art’. Each of us is created in the image of God, and it is a fine image to behold.
On the Open Table away day last year, we looked at modern examples of the iconographer’s art by Brother Robert Lentz, 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 and Felicity, plus people of various cultures and ethnicities such as gender diverse ‘two-spirit’ Native American leaders, 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 Pride Parade, and has become a popular symbol in the gay Christian community.
Liverpool Pride is focussing particularly on ‘Liverpool Icons’ – we can interpret this as we wish. One suggestion is that we use an image of The Beatles along with the message ‘All We Need Is Love’. Another suggestion is that we carry a picture of Bishop Paul, in recognition of his support for our community.
So now it’s over to you:
The early Christian saint Irenaeus wrote: “The glory of God is man fully alive. The life of a man is the vision of God.” If each of us is an image of God, what is it within us, or our lives, that makes God visible?
Who are your ‘icons’, or positive role models?
What positive message would you want to communicate to the marchers or the crowd at Liverpool Pride?