It starts with me – The fifth step on my #JourneyOfHope

IN JANUARY 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

In May, the fifth stage of this journey was a chance to put our learning into practice with an Action At Home – a small, achievable first step towards a longer-term vision of putting peace-making and reconciliation into practice in our community contexts.

As part of the application process for the Journey of Hope, I wrote a proposal for what my Action At Home might be, and reviewed this in the light of our learning from earlier modules. Here is an extract from my original proposal:

Open Table is increasingly being called upon to be part of, or to facilitate, conversations around the intersection of faith, gender, sexuality and well-being in secular and church contexts. The Open Table network is one of the organisations contacted by the Church of England’s Pastoral Advisory Group which is compiling the report Living In Love And Faith: Christian teaching and learning about human identity, sexuality and marriage. This process has already been the subject of controversy, which is likely to continue until the report is due for completion in 2020, and beyond. We are also aware of reactions against LGBTI+ affirming ministry in conservative Christian groups such as Anglican Mainstream and The Church Society, which has called services similar to Open Table ‘sacrilegious and discriminatory’ political acts which are not open to all. This is not our experience, and we would welcome the opportunity of open dialogue with those who have characterised such ministry in this way. We see our ministry as a pastoral response to a particular need, similar to Messy Church, Dementia Friendly Church, women’s and men’s ministry, which bring people together for fellowship around shared experience, while not assuming uniformity or conformity. Within the Open Table community, we are as diverse in theology and spirituality as we are in sexual orientation and gender identity. For this action, I am focusing on the Church of England as this is where the main area of controversy lies.

Extract from my application to join the Journey Of Hope pilgrimage, November 2018

As our Action At Home was designed to be done during May, I recalled that the 17th of that month is International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia & Biphobia (IDAHOTB), created in 2004 to draw the attention of policymakers, opinion leaders, social movements, the public and the media to the violence and discrimination experienced by LGBTI+ people internationally. I hoped that this occasion could be a way to bring people of diverse views together to consider this as a social justice issue. As Bishop of Liverpool Paul Bayes expressed on Twitter before walking with the Christians At Pride group in Liverpool last year:

Whatever Christians may believe about same-sex relationships, we surely all agree that homophobia/biphobia/transphobia is evil and wrong… Resist violence, resist homophobia, bless people, walk with us.

Bishop Paul Bayes, Twitter, 27th July 2018, here and here.

I planned to seek advice and participation from Bishop Paul’s LGBTI+ Reference Group, of which I am a member along with other LGBTI+ Christians, and the Diocese of Liverpool Shared Conversations group, which includes representatives from across the spectrum of thought on sexuality, same-gender relationships and marriage.

The aim was to seek common ground, with basic principles of mutual respect, listening, and commitment to shared action in order to tackle prejudice-based violence within our own communities and the wider world. An outcome of this might be a change in the tone of the conversation about the issues of sexual orientation and gender identity in our church communities, remembering that those of us who have personally experienced othering and dehumanising rhetoric need to resist the temptation to repeat this cycle in communicating with / about those with whom we profoundly disagree.

I imagined a half-day or one-day workshop at a neutral venue, involving participants with diverse perspectives willing to engage in dialogue around these issues, drawing on our existing networks within the Diocese of Liverpool in the first instance.

I also considered extending the invitation (on this occasion or at a later date) to wider participation from those organisations which have also been consulted as part of the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith project, including:

My intention was to co-facilitate the event, in consultation with the Diocese of Liverpool’s Canon for Reconciliation. Since I am not neutral issues of gender and sexuality (is anyone?), I thought it helpful to consider an external facilitator who might be perceived to be more neutral.

I hoped that the Journey of Hope course would provide the opportunity to develop skills in conflict resolution and self-care in engaging with profound disagreement around issues in which I cannot remain entirely neutral because of my personal experience. I recognise that having an impact on these areas of conflict in the wider church requires risk and collaboration with colleagues, including those with whom I profoundly disagree.

I also planned to offer a reflection at the Open Table communion service at St Bride’s Liverpool on Sunday 19th May, to feed back to the Liverpool community the fruits of my participation in the Journey Of Hope pilgrimage in general, and the Action At Home in particular, then to disseminate news of the outcomes of this project to the other communities in the Open Table network over the coming months.

Due to unforeseen issues with contacting and gathering people to participate in the event I proposed above, the Open Table communion service at St Bride’s Liverpool on Sunday 19th May became the main action in this eight-week window between Module 4 and Module 6. I planned a communion service on the theme of LGBT History Month 2019, ‘Peace, Reconciliation & Activism’, in which I led a guided reflection on what Peace, Reconcilation & Activism mean for us as LGBTQIA+ Christians and as an inclusive faith community. This was a small step towards addressing the same area of conflict I identified in my original proposal.

I shared a reflection on the story of the Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20) based on the workshop led by Padraig O’ Tuama at Corrymeela, especially how the story of the healing of the man with an ‘unclean spirit’ reveals the dynamics of marginalisation as an insight into the dynamics of belonging – that is, who is ‘in’, who is ‘out’, who decides and why. I also incorporated some of the key points from Glenn Jordan’s reflection on the Book of Ruth:

  1. Liturgy can provide an anchor point in conflict.
  2. Stories can counter-balance the dominant narrative.
  3. The need to challenge stereotypes and find empathy and generosity for the ‘other’.

You can read the full reflection here or listen to a recording here (15 mins).

I also incorporated into the liturgy elements of evening prayer from Coventry Cathedral, the Corrymeela Prayer For Courage, the 1975 Roman Missal Eucharistic Prayer 2 for Reconciliation, and National Coming Out Day materials from the Human Rights Campaign. Weaving together resources from different parts of my experience was a source of reconciliation for me – for example, the inspiration for using a Catholic Eucharistic Prayer at an Open Table communion service was a legacy of my training for priesthood in my twenties. Download a PDF of the liturgy here.

The centrepiece of the worship space was the Tree of Peace, Reconciliation and Activism, providing a creative focus through which to demonstrate the process needed to enable positive peace-making, reconciliation and activism. In the place of the tradition confession in the liturgy, I invited people to come forward and place a stone at the foot of the tree to represent what has caused them to stumble on the journey toward peace and reconciliation, especially around faith, gender and sexuality. I explained that the stone could also be a symbol of the sh*t they have gone through, which has enabled the tree to grow. I invited them to take a green leaf from the tree to represent what has helped them grow. Meanwhile music played:

Oh, why you look so sad, tears are in your eyes,
Come on and come to me now, and don’t be ashamed to cry,
Let me see you through, ’cause I’ve seen the dark side too.
When the night falls on you, you don’t know what to do,
Nothing you confess could make me love you less…

I’ll stand by you by The Pretenders – Listen here (4 mins).

In the place of the usual intercessions, I invited people to replace the leaves on the tree with red heart shapes on which they had written or drawn during the service to represent the ways in which our hurt and anger have been or may be transformed into passion for justice and equity for LGBTQIA+ people everywhere, and especially in our faith communities. Meanwhile music played:

Take O take me as I am,
summon out what I shall be,
set your seal upon my heart
and live in me.

John Bell – Listen here (4 mins).

At the end of the service I spoke about prayer as a form of activism which those who cannot engage in dialogue may offer to support those who do, and shared the Open Table prayer card I designed as a result of my reflections at Coventry and Blackley:

I also invited people to take part in other forms of activism, such as signing a petition in support of an asylum seeker in the community, and a letter in support of the ‘Equal’ campaign to change the Church of England’s teaching on same-gender marriage, and walking with Christians At Pride.

40 people attended the communion service, ranging in age from teens to eighties. All identified as Christians from a variety of denominations (to the best of my knowledge – some were new to us). Many would be classified as ‘de-churched’ – in our community, this means those who have left the inherited model of church due to fear of or actual rejection because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or other difference / minority status. Most of those present identified as LGBTQIA+ though some, including the Team Rector who presided, identify as allies of this community. 34 of those who attended took the opportunity to draw or write on the heart shapes and place them on the tree to represent what peace, reconciliation and activism mean to them. Their responses included, in no particular order:

  • Love thy neighbour, without exception. This is all people, not only those we like or share common ground with.
  • Jesus loves us all. He died for us all. He is the answer. Love Jesus.
  • Courage in authenticity.
  • Pray that hearts of stone may become hearts of love.
  • Love for difference in people’s expression of self.
  • Transformed in love & acceptance – encouraging me to love and accept myself. Free people free people.
  • Being loved, valued, accepted, knowing we are worthy and were created just as we are.
  • It means changing minds. It means visibility, even where people might erase you. It means speaking out, getting back up when you’re knocked down. IT means finding strength in ourselves and each other. It means finding justice and finding space for us.
  • Love: To totally love and accept each other, just as we are, just as God made us.
  • Freedom to exist.
  • Receiving others with a loving heart.
  • Stand firm in God’s love. Do not be afraid. Know we are all fearfully and wonderfully made. Speak truth, often, in God’s love.
  • It’s not criminal to be an individual.
  • Forgive me of my wrongdoing. Change me to do your will in Jesus’ name. Amen.
  • Acceptance.
  • Not to give up. To know we are God’s creation. Carry His love and hope in our hearts.
  • Relationships.
  • We stand firm together. LGBTQIA+ community is one big family who respect each other. Don’t let this world break us apart and do not be afraid of life’s anxieties. For God will help us all and He will guide us all, as God said: ‘Do not be afraid as I am with you.’
  • Means feeling loved, being part of a family.
  • You are all loved, we are all family. Just remember if you’re not good enough for them, you’re always good enough for God x
  • Come as you are – Come and be – Come and be free
  • Courage, Acceptance, Forgiveness
  • Love, Care, Friends, Emotion, Strength, Hope, Keep Going.
  • Light a light, don’t curse the darkness. We must stay engaged with the wider church and be heard, but with respect.
  • ‘Nevertheless she persisted’ – Keep on insisting on being at the table, even if you then have to leave. Remain. Persist.
  • I will remember to love and live like Jesus equally and have courage to remind people that that is our call.
  • Speaking openly to everyone. Being non-judgemental. Listening deeply to each person. Loving without borders or limits.
  • To serve true to God and be wiser (I think – this one was hard to read)
  • Know that no-one is silent but many are not heard – work to change this – my own response (about which I have previously written).

There were also three responses that were purely visual:

  1. A line of people joining hands – including a question?
  2. A web – spanning both sided of the heart – suggesting connection?
  3. A rosary – suggesting need for prayer, ritual, liturgy, intercession?

The reconciliation-themed communion service went well, and I received positive and constructive feedback:

  • ‘Here was peace… here was healing… here was joy… here was Jesus… and here we were!’
  • ‘Great service – so good to be together once again to worship, ponder, be challenged and be thankful!’

It was a good starting point to build on with wider reflection on what reconciliation means in practice for the wider community.

My initial proposal to bring together locally a group of people representing diverse views from across the spectrum of thought on sexuality, same-gender relationships and marriage has not yet happened. Though I did meet the Bishop of Liverpool and the Canon of Reconciliation, and began reflections about how this wider action might work, it became clear that my original aim was too ambitious to achieve within the time-frame of the Journey Of Hope pilgrimage. As an alternative, the Canon of Reconciliation offered to help facilitate an informal meal with self-selecting individuals gathered from his contacts in the Diocese of Liverpool. The new aim is to offer hospitality to this group to take part in a conversation inspired by the invitation the Bishop of Liverpool shared on Twitter before walking with the Christians At Pride group in Liverpool last year:

Whatever Christians may believe about same-sex relationships, we surely all agree that homophobia / biphobia / transphobia is evil and wrong… Resist violence, resist homophobia, bless people, walk with us

Bishop Paul Bayes, op. cit.

One potential opportunity to explore with stakeholders is the possibility of issuing a joint statement against homophobic, biphobic and transphobic violence on the tenth anniversary of the statement against homophobic violence issued by the Presidents of Churches Together In The Merseyside Region in November 2009 following two serious homophobic hate crimes in the city – the murder of Michael Causer and the assault on PC James Parkes. The statement was included on page 5 of the city’s anti-homophobic bullying policy, due to the high proportion of church schools in the region. Sadly, such a statement is still necessary, as the assault last month on a male couple in Anfield, Liverpool, by three high school age boys shows.

Over the past year I have spent an increasing amount of time away from the Open Table Liverpool community, visiting communities elsewhere. This has also meant stepping back as co-host in Liverpool to empower others to come forward, which is beginning to happen. It is important for people to feel that they are not alone, and that they are part of a bigger movement towards greater equity and justice in our churches, so sharing my learning and experience from the Journey Of Hope pilgrimage with the Liverpool community was important, to inspire and motivate them, as I also seek to do when I visit other communities. This action could be replicated in other places as a catalyst for them to reflect on how they become more of a community that embraces visibility, authenticity, courage and hope.

Drawing on insights from this reflection on what peace, reconciliation and activism mean for our community, I feel I have a clearer mandate and purpose to inform my continuing engagement with the wider Open Table network and the wider Church.

My greatest lesson from this Action At Home was that peace and reconciliation start with me – if I want to offer opportunities for peace and reconciliation to others, I need to start with myself. In my reflection on the story of the man with the ‘unclean spirit’ in the communion service I have described, I recalled the impact of the same reading on me twenty years ago. Then, I heard the call of Jesus to ‘go home to your own people’ as an invitation to see Jesus present in those who cared for me. This time I experienced the same call as a challenge – as an openly gay Christian called to ministry with and advocacy for the LGBTI+ Christian community, I recognised the dynamic which called the marginalised to speak back to the community which marginalises its own people. It appears to be the reality for many LGBTI+ Christian advocates. It is not a template for everyone – for some within the Open Table community, it might even be dangerous. But I believe some of us are called to be brave and resilient and to remain in dialogue with the Church.

I recognise now that all that I have been through, including the obstacles over which I stumbled and the sh*t which helped me grow, has equipped me for the role in which I now find myself, and given me the passion for activism towards greater equity and social justice for others, especially LGBTI+ Christians.

My hope is that sharing my journey may inspire others to find peace and reconciliation within themselves so they too may share it with others.

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