LAST MONTH I wrote about becoming a participant on the Journey of Hope pilgrimage of training in
‘Christian peace-building and reconciliation… to inspire and equip Christian leaders to become skilled practitioners of reconciliation in their churches and communities.’reconcilerstogether.co.uk
On the brink of the second step on this journey, I wrote about the first – so it is again this time. Last week I was at the Corrymeela Community in the north of Ireland, recalling our visit to The Blackley Centre, a reconciliation centre founded in 2017 by Blackley Baptist Church near Huddersfield as a place for peace-making and inter-faith relations.
Before exploring tools in conflict mapping and mediation, and learning to recognise our own style of working and relating with others, we heard a little of the story of the foundation of the church, which is recorded in the booklet: Blackley Baptist Church – Short Historical Sketch (1911). It tells how James Cartledge founded the church and built the chapel in 1798:
‘He was just simple-minded enough to believe and acknowledge God in all his ways, and depend upon the Divine guidance of his steps, hence the vow he made “That if God would prosper him he would build Him a house.” Prosper he did; remembered his vow, and paid it with interest…
‘Mr Cartlege was at this time a member of a neighbouring church, and an unfortunate incident occurred in his family. The Church exercised what they called discipline upon him by expelling him; the reason being that he had not proper control of his family. As a protest against such action, he made another solemn vow “That he would never sit down in the Chapel again”, which he carried out as religiously as his chapel building vow, for while never being absent from a service, he always stood up from entering to leaving the building. He was a grand character, cherishing no bitterness, but ever remembering the Church for good… rendering financial and other help as they needed, and he could give them.’
This image of the man refusing to be excluded, or to exclude himself, from his church community, and choosing to remain in relationship while literally standing in protest against an injustice, struck a deep chord within me. I could see how his stance could be open to interpretation – was it an act of non-violent resistance or a passive-aggressive response from a bruised ego? The interpretation depends on the perspective of the beholder.
The stance of standing against injustice reminded me of the words attributed to 16th Century German reformer Martin Luther in defence of his critique of the Church in 1521:
‘I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God, Amen.’
With the help of an intuitive colleague who picked up on the sense of an abuse of power in the history of this place, I recognised an echo of this image in the place I find myself in my church community.
This month I complete three years as a lay leader commissioned by the Diocese of Liverpool, with responsibility for the Open Table network of ecumenical worship communities for LGBT+ Christians. On the day I was first commissioned, and many times since then, people have asked me what’s next, as if becoming a licensed reader or ordained minister would inevitably follow. It’s usually well-meant, as a recognition of my ministry and encouragement to progress in it, but it also usually comes with a surprising lack of awareness, even from senior church leaders who really need to know better, that I am not eligible for licensed ministry in the Church of England, as I am a man married to a man.
When my husband and I celebrated the first civil partnership to be registered in a UK place of worship in May 2012, we were volunteering to support the first Open Table community in Liverpool, then less than four years old, meeting once a month for a communion service attended at that time by fewer than 20 people. We had no expectation that the law would change within two years to permit same-gender couples to marry. The new law permitted those already in civil partnerships to convert to marriage, either by simply filling in a form at the Register Office, or by having a civil ceremony. For 12 months after the law changed, civil partners could have a free Register Office ceremony. So we decided in November 2015 to take that next step. A small group of family and friends witnessed our renewal of vows at the Register Office, then we went to our church, St Bride’s Liverpool, for a service of thanksgiving and communion with around 150 friends and supporters.
Even in 2015, I didn’t know how my role with the Open Table community would unfold. The Liverpool community was by then reaching around 35 people a month, and just a few months before, a second Open Table community had begun meeting in Warrington, while a similar LGBT Christian service in Manchester asked to use the Open Table name and share our experience, followed by an ecumenical group in St Asaph, north Wales. We were still volunteers, largely self-taught but drawing on positive experiences of support we had each received in our own traditions, churches and communities before we joined the group which started Open Table in June 2008.
In March 2016 my husband and I were commissioned as Local Missional Leaders (an authorised lay ministry of the Church of England Diocese of Liverpool) with responsibility for the care of Open Table in Liverpool, and to explore what it would mean to share this ministry with the growing number of churches offering to host Open Table communities.
While we were in the process of applying to become Local Missional Leaders, we learned that the Archbishop of York refused to license Jeremy Timm, a Lay Reader in Yorkshire, because he planned to marry his male partner. Jeremy Timm chose to deepen his commitment to his relationship, and leave the Church of England which no longer accepted the validity of his ministry. As we wanted to discern our call to this ministry with authenticity and integrity, and didn’t want to face such a choice, we decided to submit our applications only after we had asked the Director of Mission if our application would be turned down because we planned to convert our civil partnership to marriage. The senior leadership team of the Diocese informed us that as this was a commission made at the discretion of the Bishop, and not a licensed ministry, this would not be an obstacle for us.
In July 2016 we hosted an away day in Warrington with representatives of the first four communities, with a view to producing a statement of the shared vision, mission and values of Open Table to which all current and emerging regional groups could subscribe and display (like the Inclusive Church vision statement), so people know that each Open Table community is a safe sacred place where all are free to ‘come as you are’.
When we met for our next awayday in Coventry in October 2017, there were new communities in St Helens and Wigan, Stoke and north London, Open Table Northeast in the diocese of Durham, Open Table Sefton and Isle of Man. Since then more have emerged in Bangor in north Wales, south London, Derby, Cambridge, Chester, and Widnes. Open Table is now in its eleventh year, with 17 communities hosted by inclusive churches from four denominations (Anglican, URC, Baptist and Methodist), serving more than 300 people monthly.
The number of churches contacting us has also increased significantly. We’ve had contact with more than 60 other churches – most have made first contact since the Church of England’s debate on marriage and same-sex relationships at General Synod in February 2017, when a majority voted to reject the House of Bishops’ report. Some of these churches have done their own thing under another name, some are still discerning what’s right for their community, and some are raring to go and can’t wait for us to catch up! Many are looking to Open Table as a response to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s call in February 2017 for ‘a radical new Christian inclusion in the Church’. We believe the Spirit is moving in this, as the growth of the network in the past four years is truly ‘immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine’. [Ephesians 3:20]
Our bishop, Paul Bayes, is immensely supportive – After less than a year in post, he visited Open Table at St Bride’s in July 2015, and allowed us to publicise his presence and record and share his reflection. 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. Since then he has: invited us to help form an LGBTI+ Reference Group to meet him regularly to advise on LGBTI+ issues, become a patron of Pride in Liverpool, and walked with us in two Pride marches. He speaks highly of Open Table as perhaps the fastest growing network of congregations in the Church of England today, but because Liverpool is not one of the wealthier dioceses and because only a third of the Open Table communities are in his Diocese, he cannot financially resource us to develop this ministry. Other dioceses in England and Wales have begun to offer chaplaincy for the LGBTI+ community, but these roles are fulfilled by clergy who offer this as part of the role for which they receive a stipend. The resources to support a successful lay ministry are harder to come by.
Earlier this month, I was recommissioned as a Missional Leader for the Open Table network of six communities in the Diocese of Liverpool (no longer a Local Missional Leader as Open Table has gone beyond the boundaries of that role). Plans are under way to form a governing body for the national Open Table network over the next two years. Here is the story of that event.
Because we are married, we are barred from any form of licensed ministry, yet we both work in lay ministry roles and give our time, our talents and our love for the people among whom we minister. We have lost count of the number of times people have said to us ‘you should be ordained’.
Last week was the 25th anniversary of the first ordinations of women to priesthood in the Church of England. That change would not have been possible without the courage of lay women who campaigned for the recognition of their vocations and invaluable contributions to the life of the Church. Perhaps there is a parallel here – for now, the recognition of our vocation and ministry is conditional – maybe we are in a place similar to those women a generation ago who stood up and witnessed to the inequity of the Church at that time, and eventually found validation for the call of God among them.
So, like those courageous women who challenged those with more power and privilege in the Church, until the authenticity of their vocations were recognised (by most); like James Cartledge, founder of Blackley Baptist Church, who refused to be excluded, or to exclude himself, from his church community, and chose to remain in relationship while literally standing in protest against an injustice; and Martin Luther, who believed that to recant his challenge to the Church and ‘go against conscience is neither right nor safe’, I can only say: