AT the monthly communion service in August hosted by Open Table, (OT), an ecumenical Christian worship community which offers a warm welcome to people who are: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer / Questioning, Intersex, Asexual (LGBTQIA), the Bishop of Liverpool, Rt Revd Paul Bayes, gave a reflection on
‘a story of increasing love and boundaries crossed’.
62 people came to the service on Sunday 20th August at St Bride’s Liverpool, the church which hosted the first Open Table gatherings in 2008. Bishop Paul first attended Open Table in July 2015, which was the start of a dialogue between him and the Open Table community whose fruits I reflected on in preparation for his visit this summer. Also in 2015, the Open Table family began to multiply, to four communities by July 2016, and eleven communities by September 2017. Bishop Paul’s visit in August was the largest OT gathering in nine years, except for the communion service led by Open Table London in July at General Synod, the Church of England’s governing body, when around 80 members came to worship with the LGBTQIA+ Christians present. The reflection by Rah from the OT London community, on Jesus’ righteous anger in the temple, was truly inspired – you can read it here. Also present at Open Table Liverpool in August were four representatives from another diocese who are exploring how to offer an Open Table welcome in their communities. Open Table has crossed boundaries of diocese and denomination, and challenges churches to reflect on how they understand the boundaries of gender identity and faithful loving sexuality.
On this second visit, Bishop Paul spoke on the Gospel reading of the day, in which was Matthew 15:21-28, when Jesus is challenged by a Canaanite woman to heal her daughter. Jesus, Bishop Paul reminded us, was ‘stepping out onto the border’ of what we now call the Holy Land, into a place where he and his disciples were not comfortable, to be confronted by a female non-Jew, not one of God’s ‘chosen people’ as Jesus’ contemporaries believed.
First, ‘Jesus did not answer a word’. Urged by his disciples to ‘send her away’, Jesus answered: ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.’ In response to her persistence, Jesus replied: ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.’ The Canaanite woman challenged Jesus: ‘Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.’ Recognising her ‘great faith’, Jesus granted her request.
Bishop Paul drew an analogy to a local news story of a dog who was being abused but was rescued and taken to a place of safety,
‘The dog, now called Sconehead, is heading to a loving home – and already “thinks he owns the gaff”’
and to the anti-white supremacy demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia that week. The Diocese of Liverpool is twinned with the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, and Paul’s brother bishop Shannon and colleagues took to the streets to speak ‘for the God who loves all people’.
He also referenced Peter’s vision in Chapter 10 of the Book of Acts, when God tells him: ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean,’ which he has written about more fully in Jayne Ozanne’s collection of essays called Journeys In Grace And Truth, which also contains a brief history of Open Table.
On the story of the Canaanite woman, Bishop Paul reflected that:
‘in this story, we see that Jesus, in his humanity, has his mind expanded by this marginal person, this person of the boundaries, who will not take no for an answer’.
The implication is that, just as Jesus in his humanity grew in understanding and learned to cross boundaries, so must we. He described the growing OT community as:
‘a beacon for the crossing of boundaries.’
He reflected on his presence alongside the Open Table community at Liverpool Pride, where he spoke at the muster of the march and walked in the march with us. His intention in doing so was to ‘communicate the Christian message of love and faithfulness. In his Pride speech, he said three things:
Homophbia is evil and we must oppose it
Love is love
And (speaking to those in committed relationships, civil partnerships and marriages): Thanks for your faithfulness.
Being part of the Pride event bore witness, Bishop Paul said, to:
‘the love that crosses borders and the faithfulness that shines out’.
And the message of the Gospel reading that day was:
‘you don’t belong under the table – we will lift you up, and seat you in glory.’
Echoing his inaugural sermon when he became Bishop of Liverpool in November 2014, he said:
‘The message of the Christian gospel is that the open table, which extends into every house and every street is peopled by the people who have come to meet the guy who built it – that is the poor carpenter… wherever you sit, the poor carpenter sits beside you.’
Speaking to the LGBTQIA+ people present, he said:
‘Some of you have been excluded, some of you metaphorically and some of you literally have been kicked in the head because of your orientation / identity. In the church we say, that’s not right.’
Finally, he prayed that as he advocates for moving across the boundaries in our generation, that the church may learn from the Spirit and move across together.