AS PART of the tour of Merseyside by Queer Virtue author Liz Edman last month, I took part in a panel discussion called ‘Queer Faith Voices’.
Liz uses the term ‘queer’ in the academic sense, as a verb meaning ‘to disturb / disrupt false binaries’. These binaries can relate to gender (male/female) or sexuality (heterosexual/homosexual), but they can be so much more than that. In the field of ‘queer theology’, Liz applies this term to Jesus, who ‘queers’ the boundaries between human and divine in the Church’s understanding by being fully human AND fully divine, not one OR the other. The subtitle of Liz’s book Queer Virtue is ‘What LGBTQ people know about life and love and how it can revitalise Christianity’. Liz argues that, because our communities have needed to ask deep questions about our identity and faith while others tell us we cannot be both ‘queer’ and Christian, we may have much to teach the Church about the radical nature of Jesus and Christianity. This echoes what I have written elsewhere as part of, and in response to, Barbara Glasson’s book The Exuberant Church: Listening to the prophetic people of God, on the process of ‘coming out’ as a spiritual experience, ‘both profoundly human and deeply of God’.
Here is my opening reflection on what it means for me to have become a ‘queer faith voice’:
My mum thought I was going to tell her that I’d murdered someone.
Such was my intensity when I finally came out to my parents at age 28.
Why was I so late and so earnest in finding my ‘queer voice’? Largely because my ‘faith voice’ formed first, making it harder to express my minority report of dissent.
At university I’d begun to admit I might have feelings for other men. I knew the Student Union had an LGBT+ group but I wouldn’t go because I didn’t think I was ‘one of them’.
Because of my Irish Catholic upbringing, I heard from adults I was taught to trust and respect that it wasn’t OK to be gay, that it was ‘unnatural’. Who was I to question it? Some Christians and other people of faith believe all sexual activity outside marriage and having children is ‘unnatural’ and so forbidden, so it’s not just about homosexuality, though you could be forgiven for thinking that because of all the attention it gets.
One drunken evening in a University bar, I tried confiding in a flatmate (whom I secretly adored as a fine example of God’s creation!). I asked, ‘What would you say if I told you I was gay?’ My hypothetical question meant I could deny it if he didn’t respond well. He told me to ‘go out and shag lots of women and get over it!’
Later that year he found in my room a book about becoming a Catholic priest. As a fellow Catholic, he knew Catholic priests promise to be celibate (that is, not to marry or have children). Again, he told me to ‘go out and shag lots of women and get over it!’ It seemed to be his answer for everything! It wasn’t happening for me.
After university I became a primary school teacher. I confided in a Catholic priest who was governor of a school where I worked that I might be attracted to men. He told me I should reconsider my future in education because if I got to a certain age and wasn’t married, people might think I was unsafe with their children. I felt unable to tell anyone what he said in case they thought he was right.
I left that school and began training to become a priest. I thought I would probably never marry, so becoming a priest would be more acceptable to my parents. But I was trying to be something I wasn’t. I became depressed. Sometimes I literally wished I didn’t exist.
Then I saw the film Priest, written by Jimmy McGovern and made in Liverpool, about a priest who falls in love with another man. It was beautiful and moving, and helped me to accept my feelings. I confided in another student, who told me he felt the same way, and we were able to support each other until we each decided to leave.
My mum used to say I could talk to her about anything. I thought: ‘Not if you knew what I really want to talk to you about!’ When I finally said ‘I’m gay’, my dad said: ‘God still loves you’ – the closest he ever came to saying he loved me. He added: ‘But you won’t be getting into a relationship, will you?’, since that’s what the Catholic Church says about gay people – that we’re OK as long as we don’t act on our desires.
Once they could see I was well and happy, they accepted me completely. What could have wrecked our relationship (and still does for some LGBT+ people) brought us closer than ever before. Knowing my parents accepted me made it easier to accept myself. When I met Warren, I knew I wanted to share my life with him, and they were so welcoming to him.
It was on Merseyside that I began to find my ‘queer faith voice’. My first visit to the region was to Loyola Hall, a retreat centre in Rainhill, sadly now closed. They ran an LGBT+ Christian weekend every autumn for many years. There I met many people who became and remain friends, and it was part of the reason I moved to Liverpool. So be careful what you pray for! This year, I was privileged to co-facilitate the LGBT+ retreat at its new home, St Beuno’s in North Wales. It’s been quite a journey!
After arriving in Liverpool almost 17 years ago, I joined the local Quest group for LGBT+ Catholics, then became one of the leadership team. In 2007 we were called ‘dissident group’ and forbidden from meeting on Catholic premises when the Archbishop received complaints about us celebrating Mass in the University Catholic Chaplaincy. We weren’t given the right to reply to our critics.
For several years the Quest group met in Liverpool City Centre Methodist Church, better known as ‘Somewhere Else’, or ‘the bread church’. They have a poster there called ‘How To Build Community’, which concludes with these words:
‘Know that no-one is silent, though many are not heard.
Work to change this.’
I read this as an invitation and a challenge, to be heard, not just for myself, but for other LGBT+ Christians who struggle with sexual orientation and gender identity in faith communities that judge us, at best, to be defective heterosexual or cisgender people, rather than recognising and valuing the gifts and insights that embracing our diversity can bring.
Twelve years ago I met Warren at another LGBT+ Christian group that met in the same space. The following year we found St Bride’s, an Anglican church in the Georgian Quarter of Liverpool which welcomed us both and supported us to use our gifts to develop a monthly Christian service for members of the LGBT+ community, family and friends – more of that later.
In 2010, we were part of a group of Christians who approached the organisers of the first official Liverpool Pride festival about hosting a Christian service on the eve of the festival. They said they valued inclusion so would only support an interfaith celebration. So ‘Spectrum of Spirituality’ was born, and continued for six years.
In 2012, after four years together, Warren and I celebrated our civil partnership. We arranged to have a blessing in a church afterwards, but the law changed while we were planning it, so we were able to register our civil partnership in the church during the blessing service, just like many straight couples sign the register during a church wedding. We were the first couple to register a civil partnership in a place of worship in the UK.
Then in 2014 the law changed to allow same-sex couples to get married, and couples already in a civil partnership could convert to marriage [though not in most churches]. We converted our civil partnership to marriage in November 2015, and although it is against the law in England and Wales for couples like us to be married in an Anglican Church, the St Bride’s community held the most amazing thanksgiving celebration for us!
The monthly service for LGBT+ Christians, family and friends which meets at St Bride’s is called Open Table, which means everyone is welcome to join in the service, especially the bread and wine we share in remembrance of Jesus’ last meal with his friends before he died, known as the Last Supper.
When a handful of people met in 2008 to plan a monthly Communion service, someone asked: ‘Will it be Open Table?’ When she explained that it means all are welcome, all can come as they are, without any judgement of worthiness for membership, we felt this was so important because we hear too many stories of people who feared exclusion, or were excluded, from their church community, who felt unheard or unable to express themselves or give their talents. So Open Table was born.
Open Table is still going strong after more than eleven years, with up to sixty people attending each month in Liverpool. In 2015, other churches began asking for our guidance.
Open Table communities now meet in 16 other places across England and Wales, hosted by inclusive churches in the Anglican, United Reformed, Baptist and Methodist traditions, serving more than 300 people each month. More than 80 other churches have been in touch asking for our advice on making their communities more inclusive of LGBT+ people.
Our vision is of a world where LGBT+ people are fully included within our faith traditions and communities. Until then, we aim to create safe sacred spaces for all people to encounter the infinite, unconditional, intimate love of God, offering a warm welcome to all who identify as LGBT+ and all who seek an inclusive church.