US evangelist Franklin Graham claims ‘persecution’ as UK venues cancel preaching tour bookings

IN 1984, charismatic preacher Billy Graham came to Liverpool at the invitation of local churches as part of a six-date tour called Mission England. This June, his son Franklin intends to come to the city, though the venue has withdrawn the booking, as have all seven of the other UK venues on his planned tour. So what’s going on?

Franklin Graham

In my role as co-ordinator of Open Table, a network of ecumenical Christian worship communities which offer a warm welcome to people who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer / Questioning, Intersex, Asexual (LGBTQIA) and all who seek an inclusive Church, I have received a number of requests about how we are responding to the planned visit of this controversial preacher.

One request came from BBC Radio Merseyside’s Sunday morning Daybreak programme, which interviewed Franklin Graham and gave us an opportunity to reply. Here is the interview with Franklin Graham (6 minutes 55 seconds):

Interview with Franklin Graham, BBC Radio Merseyside 02/02/2020

Here is the response from me and Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, Rector of the church where Open Table began in 2008 (7 mins 38 seconds):

Kieran Bohan & Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, BBC Radio Merseyside 02/02/2020

This reflection is based on my additional research before the interview, much of which there was no time to include, and subsequent developments.

Franklin Graham argues that his religious beliefs are being persecuted and freedom of speech denied. However he, and the Evangelical Association that bears his father’s name, have significant resources to be able to hire huge venues as a platform for their message. This seems to be expensive and privileged speech. He is entitled to say what he wishes, but he is not free from responsibility for the consequences of his speech (and nor are any of us). He says ‘it’s a shame that a very small group of people can be vocal and can deny a person their rights’, yet he has vocally opposed the rights of LGBT people in inflammatory ways, such as saying that ‘gays and lesbians cannot have children… [but] they can recruit’ children into their cause. In the same interview, he spoke in favour of Russian President Putin’s 2013 federal law ‘for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values‘ which opposes content presenting homosexuality as being a norm in society. He has also spoken in favour of ‘conversion therapy‘ which claims to re-orientate people to become heterosexual. This is despite the fact that there is no robust peer-reviewed research to demonstrate that such ‘therapy’ is effective, though there is much to show that it is harmful. For example, in the UK National Faith & Sexuality Survey, Ozanne Foundation 2018, lesbian, gay and bisexual Christians surveyed rated their mental and emotional health and well-being as significantly lower than their heterosexual peers, especially those who had undergone ‘conversion therapy’ in an attempt to alter their sexual orientation. In 2017 a Memorandum of Understanding on conversion therapy in the UK was signed by 13 professional counselling and psychotherapy organisations, including the Association of Christian Counsellors. This document informed the Church of England General Synod’s call to the UK Government to ban the controversial practice. Similarly, there is no reputable evidence to suggest that an LGBT person can ‘recruit’ or ‘convert’ anyone to become LGBT. In fact, research into age-appropriate LGBT-inclusive education suggests that it significantly reduces the risk and incidence of bullying and promotes the resilience and well-being of LGBT students. In the words of the It Gets Better performance based on LGBT people’s stories:

‘We don’t want your straight kids to be gay. We want your gay kids to survive’.

itgetsbettertour.org

These were just some of Franklin Graham’s comments which those who are opposing his 2020 UK visit have brought to the attention of the venues which have now withdrawn his bookings.

In response to these objections, Franklin Graham issued an open letter to the LGBTQ community in the UK on his Facebook page, in which he wrote:

I invite everyone in the LGBTQ community to come and hear for yourselves the Gospel messages that I will be bringing from God’s Word, the Bible. You are absolutely welcome.

A letter to the LGBTQ community in the UK, Franklin Graham 27/01/20

The language of the letter implies that you cannot be LGBT and Christian. Some of us are living on the intersection of these identities, and Open Table is living proof of that.

Yet he has also been recorded saying that ‘We have to be so careful who we let into the churches’:

We have allowed the Enemy to come into our churches. I was talking to some Christians and they were talking about how they invited these gay children to come into their home and to come into the church and that they were wanting to influence them. And I thought to myself, they’re not going to influence those kids; those kids are going to influence those parent’s children. What happens is we think we can fight by smiling and being real nice and loving. We have to understand who the Enemy is and what he wants to do. He wants to devour our homes. He wants to devour this nation and we have to be so careful who we let our kids hang out with. We have to be so careful who we let into the churches.

Franklin Graham, Dr Dobson’s Family Talk, January 2016

If you’re still in any doubt about the legitimacy of the opposition to Franklin Graham’s visit, perhaps it will help to note that this is not just an LGBT community issue (if that were not a good enough reason).

When Franklin Graham came to Blackpool in 2018, the Muslim Council of Britain issued a statement asking the Home Office to deny Franklin Graham a visa to come to the UK, following his claims that Islam is ‘evil’ and ‘wicked’ in the context of a discussion in Islam’s role in the United States following 9/11. While it is just to condemn such extreme terrorist atrocities, it is not justified to conflate the extreme views which cause these actions with the entire religion. In the same way. it would not be right to say that the whole of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism are ‘evil’ and ‘wicked’ because sectarian differences have been used to justify terrorism in the British Isles. The request to deny Franklin Graham a visa, which also had the support of three MPs, including a senior member of the government, was declined.

Others who have spoken against Graham’s visit this year include the Anglican Bishop of Sheffield (and former Dean of Liverpool Cathedral), who attended Billy Graham’s UK events in the 1980s:

But to my sadness I detect a tailing off of humility and generosity in the Graham organisation since those days.

Rt Revd Dr Pete Wilcox, Bishop of Sheffield

Paul Eddy, a traditionalist Anglican member of General Synod, points out that, unlike his father’s visits to the UK, the forthcoming tour

is not a bottom-up mission, based on what God is doing at grass roots, and the local church leaders believing that the gifts of an external evangelist were needed to help ‘harvest’ what had been sown, no.  This is a ‘personal tour’ – very different.

Why is Franklin Graham being turned away? January 30th 2020

Based on first-hand experience of Billy Graham’s UK missions, Eddy notes that this tour has not been initiated at the invitation of local churches as those of his father always were. When the tour was announced, a British evangelical gave the organisers

a serious warning that coming to the UK to conduct festivals, without invitation, would undermine the church, its ongoing mission, and divide evangelicals.  Sadly, his words were prophetic.

In the same commentary Eddy also challenges, from a Biblically conservative position, Graham’s mantra that ‘homosexuality is sin’, and his inflammatory rhetoric against Muslims as ‘unhelpful to many Christians working in predominantly Muslim communities in the UK’.

Meanwhile, a group of 17 evangelical Christians have published an open letter urging others not to back the American evangelist’s mission events, because they

find it hard to reconcile his public and partisan statements on such issues as immigration, poverty, gun control and Israel with our understanding of the teaching and values of Jesus Christ.

We evangelical Christians won’t support Franklin Graham’s UK tour, Guardian 07/02/2020

If, as Franklin Graham claims, the events he is planning in the UK this year go ahead, there are likely to be protests against them. Based on the responses above, they may be an unlikely alliance of LGBT+ folk, Muslims, Evangelicals and other Christians for whom Franklin Graham doesn’t speak. Non-violent resistance has a long and noble tradition in effecting change, with Extinction Rebellion as a recent notable example. In the LGBT rights movement, we have needed both the public protests of Peter Tatchell and OutRage! and the behind-the scenes lobbying of groups like Stonewall.

Will I, on behalf of Open Table, be joining the protests? Some members of the Open Table community may do so, as they did in Blackpool in 2018. On this occasion, I will focus my energy on celebrating the Open Table community, which is living proof to the false witness that Graham bears against the LGBT+ community. I am taking my inspiration from the words of Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr:

The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.

The Eight Core Principles of the Center for Action and Contemplation

In 2018, Open Table supported the Rainbow Weekend of inclusive events in Blackpool to counter Franklin Graham’s Festival Of Hope in the town. This year, the date when Graham intends to come to Liverpool coincides with the twelfth anniversary of the first Open Table, and the fifth anniversary of Open Table becoming a network of communities across England and Wales. So, rather than focus on what we are against, we will be celebrating what we stand for, which is expressed in Open Table’s mission and vision:

Our mission:

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 Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer / Questioning, Intersex, Asexual (LGBTQIA), their family and friends, and all who seek an inclusive church.

Our vision:

We believe our lives, our identities and our relationships are precious gifts from God, which we are called to live out with integrity. Our desire is to continue to build a community where this is evident, and which equips others to go out and do the same.

The date of the Open Table Network national celebration event is Saturday 13th June 2020, the day after Franklin Graham’s planned visit to Liverpool. SAVE THE DATE: Venue to be confirmed.

I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, as I don’t agree with all of the views expressed in the articles I have cited above. I do, however, expect a respectful dialogue. As those of us who have known what it is to be dehumanised and demonised may know, it doesn’t serve us well to do it to our opponents in return. As Richard Rohr also writes:

If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it.

Transforming Our Pain, Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM

There are limits when respectful dialogue is absent:

We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.

US Civil rights activist James Baldwin

As Bishop of Liverpool Paul Bayes wrote on Twitter before walking with the Christians At Pride group in Liverpool in July 2018:

UPDATE 02/03/2020: Following feedback I updated the closing paragraphs about the relationship between protest and dialogue, to clarify that both are often necessary to advocate for and effect change.

UPDATE 01/04/2020: Franklin Graham says UK tour postponed until next year after venue cancellations, legal cases need to be settled

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