Come As You Are – LGBT+ Christians celebrate ten years of inclusive welcome

Bishop of Liverpool Paul Bayes and around seventy members of Open Table and other churches in the Diocese of Liverpool marched during the city’s Pride festival in July 2018.

A CHRISTIAN community which warmly welcomes people who are LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer/Questioning, Intersex and Asexual), their friends and family, is celebrating its tenth anniversary in Liverpool this month.

The inclusive celebration, hosted by the community known as ‘Open Table’, will take place on Sunday 17th June 2018, at St Bride’s Church on Percy Street in Toxteth, Liverpool.

Revd Dr Steven Shakespeare, author of Prayers for an inclusive church, will lead a communion service to mark the anniversary. Poet Cate Jacobs, author of Climbing mountains in the dark which evokes her experience of living with HIV, will give a reflection on her journey with the Open Table community.

Doors open at 6pm for refreshments before the service at 6.30pm. The service will be followed by a shared meal of soup and bread, and home-made rainbow cake.

In June 2008, six people gathered with a vision to start a regular communion service for the LGBTQIA+ community. The name Open Table was chosen because it is a term churches use to describe the practice of welcoming everyone to share in the symbolic meal of bread and wine in memory of Jesus (Holy Communion or Eucharist). Most of the monthly Open Table services are communion services, using gluten free bread and non-alcoholic wine so all are able to share in one bread and one cup of wine.

Ten years later Open Table has grown into a thriving community of up to 60 people gathering twice a month at St Bride’s Liverpool. Open Table has also multiplied across England and Wales over the last three years. Open Table communities now welcome up to 300 LGBTQIA+ people and their allies each month.

After seven years of being the only Open Table community, the team at St Bride’s supported a second Open Table community to launch at a United Reformed Church in Warrington in July 2015. Within a year there were two more, in Manchester and St Asaph, north Wales.

In July 2016 the first four communities met for an ‘Appreciating Open Table’ day in Warrington, which was included as a case study in Appreciating Church, a practical community development resource for churches and communities using the Appreciative Inquiry (AI) approach, published in February 2017.

Within three months of the Warrington gathering, at which the communities worked on a shared mission, vision and values, the number of communities doubled to eight, including groups in St Helens and Wigan, Stoke and London. 2017 saw the launch of four more, in Houghton-le-Spring near Sunderland, Sefton on Merseyside, Douglas on the Isle of Man and Bangor in North Wales.

Now, as they mark their ten-year milestone, there are fourteen Open Table communities hosted by inclusive Anglican, United Reformed and Baptist churches, whose members come from an even wider range of Christian traditions and no prior church background.

So far in 2018, a second community has launched in London, and last month saw the start of Open Table in Derby. Three more are preparing to launch later this year, in Cambridge, Chester and Widnes.

More than fifty other churches have made contact with Open Table to explore the possibility of hosting an Open Table community. Most of these enquiries have come since February 2017, when the Church of England’s governing body, the General Synod, voted to reject a report from the House of Bishops on Marriage and Same-Sex Relationships, and the Archbishop of Canterbury and York responded with a call for a ‘radical new Christian inclusion’ for LGBTI people in the Church of England. As people have explored what this ‘radical new Christian inclusion’ looks like, many have looked to Open Table for inspiration.

Warren Hartley, the LGBTQIA+ Ministry Facilitator at St Bride’s, said:

‘It has been my privilege to serve as a facilitator of Open Table since the beginning, and I have found it a deeply enriching experience.’

He added,

‘Open Table grew out of a desire to create a safe, affirming and inclusive space for the LGBTQIA+ community to explore and practice their faith and integrate it with their gender identity and sexual orientation. Many who come are part of other church communities where they may not be able to be open about who they are. For others, Open Table is their only worshipping community. For everyone, it is a space where you can ‘come as you are’ as a whole person,’

Warren’s husband Kieran Bohan, who has taken on the part-time role of Open Table network coordinator as communities have spread more widely, said:

‘When six of us met in 2008 and someone asked “Will it be ‘Open Table’, I asked what that meant as it was not part of my faith tradition. When she explained that it means all are welcome, all can come as they are, I just felt overjoyed, my heart leapt within me and I thought ‘Yes, absolutely, it should be Open Table!’”

He explained:

‘We felt there was a need for Open Table because of too many people we knew, too many stories we’d heard, of people who felt excluded from their church community, or felt unheard, or unable to express themselves or to give their talents. Faith communities can be welcoming, accepting, affirming, empowering, and it’s clear there’s a hunger for that – if there weren’t, we wouldn’t be getting so many enquiries from other places.’

In March 2016, the Archdeacon of Liverpool commissioned Warren and Kieran as Local Missional Leaders in the Church of England Diocese of Liverpool for a minimum of three years. This is a church leadership role for lay people (who are not ordained as clergy) authorised by the Rt Revd Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool.

Bishop Paul Bayes has twice celebrated communion with the Open Table community in Liverpool, once on their seventh birthday in 2015, and last summer after the Liverpool Pride festival, when Bishop Paul was announced as a patron of the city’s Pride charity. He addressed more than 8,000 marchers and walked with around 70 people from Open Table and other churches in his diocese.

Revd Dr Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, Rector of the Team Parish of St Luke In The City Liverpool, which includes St Bride’s church, said:

‘At the heart of Jesus’ teaching and life was the simple message that God loves everybody. The kingdom of God is a place of welcome and inclusion, open to all. God, and God’s love, are beyond all our human distinctions, including gender and sexuality. Open Table models that radical inclusivity. Sadly, LGBTQIA+ people are still often excluded by some churches, and many have had hurtful experiences of being excluded in the past, so Open Table’s specific remit to be a community run by and for LGBTQIA+ people is still very much needed. Over the last ten years it has borne much fruit, with new Open Table congregations opening around the country, and a fantastic and growing community here in Liverpool. We look forward to seeing what God will bring in the next ten years.’

NOTES:

A brief history of Open Table was published in Jayne Ozanne’s book Journeys in Grace and Truth in June 2016, and distributed to all member of the Church of England’s General Synod as it held ‘Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission and Human Sexuality’. Open Table was also included in the Church Army research into the sustainability of Fresh Expressions in the Church of England, called Sustaining Young Churches, which was published in November 2016.

‘Will it be Open Table?’ Our history, mission, vision & values – updated November 2017, including a three-minute film made at St Bride’s Liverpool in August 2017.

The theology and spirituality of Open Table: A person-centred approach – updated November 2017.

For more information about Open Table, visit opentable.lgbt, or contact Kieran Bohan on 07501 753 618 or opentablelgbt@gmail.com

St Bride’s Liverpool is the Anglican church for the University and Canning areas of Liverpool, on the corner of Percy Street and Canning Street. It is committed to a vision of faith which is creative in worship, progressive in thought and inclusive of everyone. For more information about St Bride’s, visit stbridesliverpool.org.uk

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.