THIS MONTH, as the Co-ordinator of the Open Table Network, I led the first of a new series of monthly online worship gatherings. We took the theme of ‘coming out’, as 11th October is marked around the world as ‘Coming Out Day’.
Father Mychal Judge was a little-known Franciscan friar ministering humbly to the disenfranchised and unloved on the streets of New York City… until September 11, 2001, when he suddenly became a global figure. As chaplain …
TODAY is the day that the person who inspired me to begin sharing my story steps down as the President of the Methodist Conference, the governing body of the Methodist Church of Great Britain. Barbara …
LAST MONTH, in my role as Open Table Network Coordinator, I was interviewed by Revd Phillip Johnson, vicar of the Parish of Malvern Link With Cowleigh, which is discerning whether to host an Open Table …
IT’S BEEN a year since the sixth step 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 …
Last week I found a copy of a short film portraying different sayings about love (love is timeless, love hurts, love is blind) made by a group of students from Liverpool John Moores University. My husband Warren and I were asked to speak about ‘Forbidden Love’ – the church’s teaching on same-sex relationships.
Today marks 21 years since the nail bomb attack on the packed Admiral Duncan pub in Soho, the heart of London’s LGBT+ community. This followed bomb attacks in Brixton and Brick Lane, targeting black and …
As the chaplain at YMCA Liverpool and YMCA St Helens, I am often asked this question by residents.
I have found it helpful to share the story of St Martin, a fourth century bishop and former soldier, who gave us the origin of the words ‘chapel’ and ‘chaplain’, and whose life was an example of chaplaincy in action.
St Martin of Tours (316 – 397 AD), whose feast day is 11th November, is credited as the founder of Christian chaplaincy. A legend associated with him provides a direct source for understanding hospitality as it relates to chaplaincy today.
Unlike many early saints, about whom we know little , we know quite a bit about St Martin of Tours, thanks to a writer named Sulpicius, who devoted his life to following Martin, talking with those who were involved in his life, and writing a biography of him before the saint died.
Sulpicius recorded that Martin was a bishop in Gaul (modern-day France) who shunned the privileged status of that role to live in a monk’s cell in the wilderness. Before Martin became a Christian, at fifteen he was forced to join the army of the occupying Roman Empire.
One day Martin was on duty in Gaul when he noticed a beggar, freezing in the cold. Martin, moved with compassion, went to his aid. He took off his thick army cloak and cut it in two with his sword. One piece he wrapped around the beggar and the other he kept for himself.
This act echoes the ‘Golden Rule’ common to many spiritual traditions, which Jesus called one of the two greatest commandments: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’(Mark 12:29). I have written elsewhere about how this has become the basis of my understanding of chaplaincy for residentst and staff at the YMCA. This story reveals that it is at the heart of all chaplaincy everywhere.
That night Martin had a dream in which he saw the beggar with the piece of his cloak on his shoulders. But in his dream the beggar was Jesus. Sulpicius records that in Martin’s dream-vision, Jesus said to the angels, ‘Here is Martin, the Roman solider – he has clothed me.’ This recalls the parable of the sheep and goats from Matthew’s gospel: ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’ (Matthew 25:40). So chaplains are called to honour each person as a beloved child of God, made in the image of God (though they may not know that for themselves), as if they were Jesus among us today.
This vision of Jesus as the beggar transformed Martin, convincing him to give his life in service to the poor and neglected in his society as a monk. Finally he was able to leave the army to take up his calling, becoming a fierce advocate for the powerless to whom injustices were easily done.
The people loved Martin and wanted him as their bishop, but Martin wanted to remain a monk and refused to take the office. So they tricked him by sending someone to beg Martin to come to visit his supposedly sick wife. When Martin arrived in the city, he was carried by the crowd into the church, where bishops had gathered to consecrate him. The bishops were repelled by this dirty, dishevelled man and thought his unkempt appearance proved him unfit for the office. But the people insisted – they hadn’t chosen Martin for his outward appearance, but for his compassion, humility and commitment to justice. Overwhelmed by the acclamations of the people, the bishops consecrated Martin as bishop of Tours.
Martin’s activism for the poor and love of people was matched by his commitment to solitude and prayer. He developed regional spiritual communities as places of hospitality for anyone, regardless of background, who sought direction or sanctuary. He instituted the practice, which continues today, of the bishop making pastoral visits to each of his communities at least once a year. This visitation was significant at a time when those in authority, who lived in the towns and cities, often neglected country people.
He lived simply and humbly, resisting status-seeking for himself. When he died, Martin was buried at his request in the cemetery for poor people. The Frankish Kings kept Martin’s half of the cloak he had shared with the beggar as a precious relic. The guardian of this cloak became known as the capellanus in Latin, derived from the word cappa, meaning a cloak or cape. Cappelanus came to the English language via Old French as ‘chaplain’. The place where the relic of Martin’s torn cloak became known as the capella, which is the origin of the word ‘chapel’. The values and example of St Martin began to provide a legacy for the work of chaplains since the inception of the early European universities.
St Martin of Tours, reputed as the founder of the vocation of Christian chaplaincy, is the chaplain’s prototype. He often travelled to the countryside, meeting ordinary people neglected by town officials. So chaplaincy today is also a fluid occupation, not confined to a desk and appointment schedule, but mobile, unobtrusively engaging with people in their everyday life, particularly those in need of support. Chaplaincy is defined by the same compassionate impulse as the incident of Martin with the beggar, and chaplaincy sees such acts as sacred.
The hospitality of St Martin changed the lives of the people he met. To sustain their transformed lives, he encouraged them to form communities of hospitality, in which Christians offered hospitality to each other as a context for hospitality to others.
That’s the understanding of chaplaincy I aim to live out today.
St Martin, pray for us whose ministry takes your life as a template for unconditional love of others. Amen
As part of YMCA Liverpool’s commemoration of World Homeless Day 2019, residents and staff gathered to celebrate the opening of a new Memorial Garden at its headquarters, Hope House.
As chaplain for this extraordinary community which offers supported accommodation for people experiencing homelessness, it was my privilege to dedicate the garden to the memory of YMCA members who are no longer with us.
The Hope House garden is a partnership project led by YMCA Liverpool service users. The garden is a reclaimed area of the car park at Hope House. This is a busy centre situated in the heart of Liverpool on a busy A-Road so outdoor space is at a premium.
Residents said that a garden would provide a space for them to enjoy the outdoors, which could also be used for workshops and activities. Following consultation with service users, YMCA Liverpool worked with The Conservation Volunteers (TCV) to bring the garden project to life. TCV is a voluntary group which supports a wide range of adult volunteers from all walks of life to transform green spaces, including people with learning disabilities and retired people. An expert horticulturist led the clearing and development of the site using hand tools, heritage methods and a conservation focus. TCV also involved YMCA Liverpool residents, so they have a real sense of ownership of the garden.
The garden will benefit all the residents of YMCA Liverpool at Hope House, which is 69 at any one time. More than 4 out of 5 residents at the time of the garden consultation took part. The garden team was made up 15 residents who actively took part in the upkeep of the garden. Six volunteers from TCV regularly gave their time to this project, totting up 180 volunteer hours to create the garden space.
The volunteers cleared the site, carried out necessary groundworks, built, installed and secured raised beds, installed natural shield plants such as willow to create screening, built and installed picnic benches, put in topsoil, installed small animal shelters, bug houses and bird houses, and worked to engage YMCA Hope House residents to become involved and retain enthusiasm for the garden project.
YMCA Liverpool’s service user group designed a programme of activities for summer 2019, including:
Making hanging baskets;
Planting a sensory area and a food growing area;
Painting the fence;
An arts project to decorate the raised beds.
The Project Lead for YMCA Liverpool’s Dutch Farm horticulture project, Liz Sabatini, who coordinated the Hope House garden project, said:
‘The garden has created a fantastic space that the people we support are really enjoying. Hope House is right in the middle of town and the garden has provided some much needed green space, outdoor seating and the opportunity to grow organic food and learn new skills. Our volunteer days made a real impact and we now have a great garden for people to enjoy. There is now a Wednesday garden club who are taking care of the garden and continuing the transformation of this once-forgotten bit of our car park!’
Funding for the garden project came from a Finnis Scott Foundation grant of £4750, and an additional grant of £2000 through the Tesco Bags of Help scheme, where members of the public voted to support this scheme.
We also received a donation following a memorial service for a resident who died last winter. This led to the idea of dedicating the garden to the memory of members of our YMCA community who are gone but not forgotten.
To celebrate the completion of the project, on Wednesday 9th October 2019 (the day before World Homeless Day), I led YMCA Liverpool residents and staff in a simple dedication of the garden, and installed a plaque which says:
Memorial Garden In memory of YMCA members who lost their way Gone, never forgotten Opened on 9th October 2019 in YMCA’s 175th anniversary year
Chief Executive of YMCA Liverpool & Sefton, Ellie McNeil, cut the ribbon to formally open the garden space, and Director of Business Development for the YMCA Liverpool City Region, Nikki Melia, planted a rose bush to form the centrepiece of the Memorial Garden. Residents planted bulbs around the rose bush to fill the flower bed with new growth and colour.
The opening of the Hope House Memorial Garden was a happy occasion where we gave thanks:
For the beauty of creation and for this place of peace and refuge
For treasured memories of those who once journeyed with us
For the comfort of friends for who still surround us
For those who made this Memorial Garden possible
and dedicated the space as a reminder for all who rest there of the promise of hope and new life.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots on 28th June 1969, an act of resistance against police brutality at the Stonewall Inn in New York. This was a galvanizing moment for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT+) activists to unite in a movement fighting for civil rights, which has spread across the world.
While London has held a Pride march and festival each year close to the Stonewall anniversary since 1972, in Liverpool it has been held annually since 2010, on a Saturday close to the anniversary of the death of Michael Causer, an 18-year-old who died from horrific injuries caused by what police investigated as a homophobic attack.
For the past three years, the Open Table LGBT+ Christian community based at St Bride’s in Toxteth has co-ordinated the Christians At Pride group in Liverpool.
Each year, a group call Christian Voice protests at Pride marches around the country. To show that there is more than one Christian voice, Christians at Pride exists to provide a joyful, loving, inclusive Christian presence at Pride festivals around the UK.
In 2018 more than 100 Christians joined the group, including Bishop of Liverpool Paul Bayes, former Archdeacon of Liverpool Ricky Panter, and Sheryl Anderson, Chair of Liverpool Methodist District.
As Bishop Paul expressed on Twitter before walking with the Christians At Pride group 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
This year’s Pride In Liverpool was the first organised by the newly formed Liverpool City Region (LCR) Pride Foundation, which aims ‘to position Liverpool City Region as the most LGBT+ friendly region in the UK’. As community partners of the LCR Foundation, the leaders of the Open Table Liverpool community which meets at St Bride’s Church were among the first to know the theme for Pride In Liverpool 2019 – which was ‘Come As You Are’. We were delighted to hear this, as the Open Table community has used ‘Come As You Are’ as its slogan and message of unconditional welcome for many years.
Bishop Paul was unable to walk in solidarity with us this year, but he did record a brief message of support in this Youtube video (1 minute):
In this year’s march, around 100 amazing people from Open Table and a dozen or so other churches (including the Chair of the Methodist District again), gathered to march along with 12,000+ others.. It was a joy-full day, despite the rain, and celebration of life in all its richness and diversity. We were reminded of Jesus’ words:
I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.
Take a look at the wonderful photos from the march taken by photographer Mark Loudon on the march in this Youtube slideshow, accompanied by the hymn ‘Come As You Are’ by Deirdre Brown, from which the Open Table community took its slogan (2 minutes 30 seconds):
After the march, Open Table hosted a community stall during the Pride festival in the city centre. We invited people to ‘share some love, say thanks, make a wish, write a prayer’ on prayer flags in the colours of the rainbow flag. We also invited people to have selfies taken with our ‘Image Of God’ frame, as we are all beloved children of God, uniquely reflecting God’s image in our world. You can see them in this Facebook gallery.
That sense of joy continued into Sunday as 115 people gathered in the Lady Chapel of Liverpool Cathedral for a Post-Pride Service which was truly a celebration of life.
Newly ordained deacon Lynne, who is involved with Open Table in St Helens, and Open Table Liverpool co-host Warren were interviewed by BBC Radio Merseyside’s Helen Jones for the Sunday morning programme Daybreak about the march, the Post-Pride service, Open Table and LGBT Christian experience. Listen here (6 minutes 18 seconds):
The Post-Pride service at Liverpool Cathedral was based on a poem written by Open Table member Jamie Haynes, and inspired by kintsugi, the Japanese art of recognising the beauty in broken objects and repairing them with gold, treating breakage and repair as part of the history of an object rather than something to be hidden or disguised. Download PDF: Kintsugi – A Pride Poem by Jamie Haynes.
Warren from Open Table Liverpool gave a personal reflection on the theme ‘Come As You Are’, and how it came to be the anthem of Open Table. Listen here (11 minutes):
During the service people were welcomed to come forward to light a candle and, in words or in silence, bring before God our prayers of love, hope, thanks and concern. We also shared the intentions that went into making the prayer flags on our community stall at the Pride festival.
We also invite people to be anointed with oil. Anointing is an ancient ritual, practiced in many faiths. In Christianity, it is used to denote blessing and is a symbol that the anointed person is sacred and loved by God. As each person was anointed, these words were spoken, based on the Kintsugi poem:
There is gold dust in your veins and radiance in your heart. No matter your path, God walks beside you.
Blessing for anointing at Liverpool Cathedral Post-Pride Service
Photographer Mark Loudon also took pictures at the Post-Pride Cathedral Service which are in this Facebook gallery.
The service concluded with a slide show inspired by Open Table Liverpool’s Lent course this year, which explored the themes of redemption in The Greatest Showman based on a book by Rachel Mann, a trans Anglican priest.
The slideshow includes photos of the Open Table Liverpool community and the story of Pride In Liverpool, accompanied by the big hit from the movie, This Is Me (4 minutes):
SINCE January 2019, I have worked part-time as chaplain for the community at YMCA St Helens. There I discovered a hidden gem, of which many of the hostel’s residents and staff were unaware.
The chapel, on the second floor of the early 20th Century building on North Road, has not been used regularly for more than twenty years.
When I arrived and explored the space, I found some treasures:
A stained glass window celebrating the international YMCA movement with the original red triangle logo and the name in different languages (see top of page)
A 1949 edition of the YMCA hymnal ‘specially designed for the use of men’ with the original logo representing ‘Spirit Mind Body’ on the cover
A 1927 edition of the YMCA hymnal and prayer book presented to ‘St Helen’s YMCA Everyman’s Chapel’ presented by the ‘St Helens YMCA women’s auxiliary in loving memory of Betty Leyland’
as well as several wooden plaques commemorating significant people and moments in the life of the Association.
So I have taken on the project of restoring the chapel as a communal space for residents and staff to gather, or to take quiet time out for reflection. This seems like a fitting way to mark the 175th anniversary of the largest and oldest youth charity in the world.
YMCA St Helens has begun to renovate the space to return it to use as a chapel – a creative, reflective, quiet space for the YMCA community to enjoy.
Since the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) is no longer just for young men, or Christians, Kieran’s proposal is to rename the former ‘Everyman’s chapel’ as ‘Everyone’s Chapel’ when the restoration is complete.
It will include artwork designed and made by residents to reflect the new name.
The rededication of the chapel will include an event which is open to the wider community to celebrate with and show support for the YMCA St Helens community.
Tonight as we consider how we might make peace, be reconciled and become activists for God and each other, let’s take courage from the words of Isaiah we have just heard. They were chosen by LGBTI+ Christians to commemorate this international campaign against the fear and reality of prejudice and violence towards our communities, because our diversity challenges those whose narrower view of God and humanity does not accept us as we are. We need not fear, because we are valued, honoured and loved by God, and together we can be the change we want to see in our world, and especially in our faith communities.
But what’s the strange story we heard from Mark’s Gospel got to do with us? (Mark 5:1-20).
In the translation we have just heard, the man who is healed is called ‘a man with an unclean spirit’– I am not suggesting that we as LGBTI+ Christians are ‘unclean’, though some may say we are.
The reason this story spoke to me most profoundly,
personally and in terms of my way of being within the wider church on behalf of
the Open Table community, is because of what it teaches us about the
relationship of Jesus with one who, like us, is marginalised by the community.
This is a passage with which I was quite familiar (or
so I thought). I heard it again, as if
for the first time, while on a course in Christian peace-building and
reconciliation earlier this year, at Corrymeela in the north of Ireland, which
has more than
‘…fifty years of experience working alongside fractured communities and groups who are finding their relationships difficult, as well as addressing relational, societal, structural and power dynamics.’
Corrymeela community leader Pádraig Ó Tuama talked us
through how the story of the healing of the man with ‘unclean spirits’ 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.
Corrymeela’s approach is to focus on marginalisation
as a process, not as an identity – that is, who is victimising and why, rather
than labelling and limiting people as ‘victims’. So, in the case of the ‘man
with unclean spirits’, we were invited to reflect on:
What is the
system underlying this behaviour?
restraining this man and why?
Was he howling
because he was restrained, or restrained because he was howling?
Why were the
people of the town afraid of the man when they saw he was ‘in his full senses’?
Who is a
community willing to sacrifice to perpetuate a culture of violence?
Jesus asked the man to name his ‘demons’, which was
the first step to healing. Rather than torturing him as he expected, Jesus
enabled him to be free from the dynamics which tortured him, internally and
externally. He ‘came out from the tombs’, barely existing among the dead, and
was restored to new life, ‘in his full senses’. This was the part of the story
with which I was most familiar. It spoke to me of my own process of ‘coming
out’ about my sexuality, and having since supported many others on their own
journeys of self-discovery, I suspect I am not alone in that.
I had reflected on this passage over several days while I was on a silent retreat following my departure from training for Catholic priesthood twenty years ago. At the time I was struggling to come to terms with my sexuality and find a new way of being in relationship with God, my family and others. I still have the journal from that retreat. At that time, my experience of the story was to recall my own time of ‘dwelling among the tombs’, especially the circumstances of a breakdown ten years before that. At first, I felt the absence of God – the cry ‘What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?’ spoke to me of remote divinity, not shared humanity, since my humanity felt so debased at that time. I recalled my sense of anguish, shame, judgement, and punishment from a negative image of God and myself. I realised my experience of rejection and loss of dignity were where I needed healing.
I have since learned that this story is extraordinary
for other reasons too. It is just one example in Mark’s Gospel of how the
Kingdom of God refuses to play by society’s rules. In the previous chapter, the
parable of the mustard seed tells of a tiny seed growing into a huge tree
attracting nesting birds. Jesus’ audience would have known that this was
unlikely, so Jesus seems deliberately to emphasize the astonishing extravagance
of God’s Kingdom. So in the story of the man with unclean spirits, Mark fails
to record that pigs can in fact swim, yet he does record that the swineherds
and townspeople were angry, not because their pigs were dead, but because the
demons had disappeared! The true scandal of this story is in this
counter-narrative that goes against what the audience might expect to hear.
Anthropologist Rene Girard, who studied the capacity of human cultures to ‘scapegoat’,
that is, to blame, shame and cast out those who are too different, too
challenging to the dominant narrative of the culture, to remain within it,
wrote of this passage:
‘Clearly, the drowning of their pigs concerns them less than the drowning of their demons.’
the Kingdom of God is oriented toward those whom society deems flawed and keeps at arm’s length. When the thing we fear most is transformed and brought directly into our midst, our natural inclination is fear and a reliance upon violence to rid ourselves of the change that we cannot explain.
So this story is an example of the dynamics at work when our faith communities, and wider society, display homophobia, biphobia and transphobia to judge us as ‘flawed’ heterosexual or cisgender people, rather than examples of the abundance and diversity of humanity and God’s creation.
What really struck me about hearing this story retold
in the context of the reconciliation course at Corrymeela was the part of the
story I had forgotten, or at least not fully understood – Pádraig informed us
that the Greek word for ‘beg’ is used eight times in the 16 chapters of Mark’s
gospel, and four of them are in this passage. Jesus acquiesces to each of these
requests, except for one, which we hear in the closing verses of the story:
‘As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ And he went away and began to proclaim in the cities how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.’
The man who is healed is also known as the ‘Gerasene
Demoniac’ after the name of the town which excluded him – The location of the
Gerasene community is not known – one interpretation is that as a consequence
of the scandal and shame of this encounter, it has been covered up to avoid
Jesus restores the man to his own people, and his
people to him. Jesus enables him to challenge the dehumanising ‘Us and Them’
dynamic which enabled the community to marginalise him. He becomes a victim of
marginalisation with the capacity to talk back to those who marginalised him,
and to confront his community with its own violence to one of its own people.
It echoes an insight from war theory, that those who are tortured get a
profound knowledge of their torturers. Pádraig described the demoniac as an
‘a prophet with the audacity to be the possibility of life where people told you there couldn’t be.’
Hearing the story this time I experienced the call of
Jesus to ‘go home to your own people’ 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. Pádraig pointed out that this 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. Easier said than done,
Within days of my taking part in this reflection at
Corrymeela, Sara Gillingham, an advocate for the intersex community, was
invited to join a meeting with a group of Church of England bishops, senior
clergy, theologians and academics in London to discuss their work on
the Living In Love and Faith teaching
document about human identity, sexuality and marriage. She wrote before the
It angers me that I will be meeting people today who have thought it acceptable to write theological reflections about our lives, without ever having met people born with intersex traits. It angers me that I know I will be sat alongside those who think I am ‘disordered’ as a ‘result of the Fall’. For this reason, today will be a very difficult day for me, despite the opportunities it may present. Furthermore, there are clear issues around the disparity of power, authority and privilege.
Sarah Gillingham, Facebook, quoted with permission
The next day she wrote that she had left the meeting
half-way through, ‘because of the way I was treated’, adding:
It is important those with ‘lived experience’ are invited to the table as equals. That means being given access to what has been written about them… and then given the freedom to comment on what has then been submitted. What needs to be understood, not just at an academic level, is what ‘power & privilege’ looks like and how it is experienced in the Church by those who are ‘other’.
Sarah Gillingham, Facebook, quoted with permission
This is why the inclusive liturgy, the counter-narratives
of those on the margins, and the challenge to stereotypes of LGBTI+ Christians
we see in our Open Table communities are needed, as examples of the ‘radical new
Christian inclusion’ called for by the Archbishop of Canterbury in February
2017, following the Church of England General Synod’s rejection of the House of
Bishops’ report on marriage and same-sex relationships. This act of resistance
by Synod representatives was the origin of the ‘Living In Love And
Faith’ group, which was inhospitable to its sole intersex representative,
and has also seen Dr Christina Beardsley, a trans representative, leave the
process, citing a gender imbalance in the coordinating group, a ‘sense of
powerlessness and oppression’, and two final triggers which she described in
the Church Times:
‘An LGBTI+ person known to me was demonised. It was as if a mask had suddenly dropped. Shortly afterwards, the principle of “no talking about us without us” was diluted, yet again, in relation to someone else I know. It was all too much.’
Christina Beardsley, Church Times
It seems Archbishop Justin and his representatives
need to be reminded of the words of his own statement of intention, that this
‘radical new Christian inclusion’ in the Church ‘must be based on good,
healthy, flourishing relationships’, as he wrote in a statement in February
2017. He continues:
‘No person is a problem, or an issue. People are made in the image of God. All of us, without exception, are loved and called in Christ. There are no ‘problems’, there are simply people…
‘The way forward needs to be about love, joy and celebration of our humanity; of our creation in the image of God, of our belonging to Christ – all of us, without exception, without exclusion.’
Archbishop Justin Welby
Sometimes the Church can be an inhospitable place for
those presenting a minority report, especially on gender identity and
sexual orientation. My prayer for our ministry and community, and all who walk
a similar path, is that we may have, as Pádraig Ó Tuama says of Mark’s
the audacity to be the possibility of life where people told you there couldn’t be.
So let’s pray together the Corrymeela Prayer For Courage:
Courage comes from the heart and we are always welcomed by God, the heart of all being.
We bear witness to our faith, knowing that we are called to live lives of courage, love and reconciliation in the ordinary and extraordinary moments of each day.
We bear witness, too, to our failures and our complicity in the fractures of our world.
May we be courageous today. May we learn today. May we love today.
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.
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.
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:
Liturgy can provide an anchor point in conflict.
Stories can counter-balance the dominant narrative.
The need to challenge stereotypes and find empathy and generosity for the ‘other’.
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…
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.
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:
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.
Not to give up. To know we are God’s creation. Carry His love and hope in our hearts.
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)
There were also three responses that were
A line of people joining hands – including a question?
A web – spanning both sided of the heart – suggesting connection?
A rosary – suggesting need for prayer, ritual, liturgy, intercession?
reconciliation-themed communion service went well, and I received positive and
‘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
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.
About two years ago, I dreamed that I travelled back
in time and saw myself as a teenager. My younger self approached me and gave me
a hug. The day before, I had visited a secondary school to discuss what more they
could do to support their LGBT students. I suspect these two events are
I first visited the school as a volunteer with Diversity Role Models (DRM for short). It’s a charity which seeks to prevent homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying in UK schools by educating young people about difference, challenging stereotypes and inappropriate language. DRM offers workshops featuring positive role models who are LGBT or allies, who speak directly to young people about their experiences, to challenge bullying by promoting empathy. During the workshops two role models speak for five minutes each to tell their story, then answer young people’s questions.
One question DRM asks is ‘Do you think an LGBT student
would feel safe coming out in your school?’ In most schools where I have
supported DRM as a role model, only a small proportion of students answer
‘Yes’. In this school, most of the Year 11 students (aged 15-16) responded
positively, which was hugely encouraging. One of the reasons is that it is an
academy which takes students from Key Stage 4 (age 13-14) upwards. So most
students have made a positive choice to attend, having spent two or three years
at other secondary schools, where they may have experienced bullying for being
The school specialises in creative media, gaming
and digital technology, so many of its students have been dismissed as ‘nerds’
in their previous schools – in this school, they are in their element, with
greater freedom to express their creativity and individuality. One student
described it as the school where ‘the geeks and gays’ go!
It does have a high proportion of students who are
LGBT or questioning – though not all are ‘out’ to their peers, staff are aware
and supportive. Having supported one young person through gender transition,
other trans and gender questioning young people have sought out a place at the
Of course it would be better if all schools were as good at pastoral care for their LGBT+ students, but I was delighted to affirm their practice and explore with them how they may develop this for their students and share it as an example to other schools.
This is a
version of the story I shared when visiting schools as a role model:
My name is Kieran – I’m originally from London, the youngest of six children from an Irish Catholic family. I’ve lived in Liverpool since 2003. For ten years until 2015, I ran Liverpool’s youth group for LGBT young people aged 12-25, the longest running LGBT youth group in the UK.
When I was at school, I felt I was different from the
other boys but didn’t know why. I didn’t feel good about myself most of the
time. Around age 14, I had a crush on a friend – I didn’t think much of myself,
but I thought he was great. I thought I wanted to be like him, but I got
jealous when he spent time with other friends. Other boys bullied me because
they thought I was gay, but I had never said I was – I
hadn’t admitted it to myself.
After finishing school, I left home for the first time
and went to university. I’d begun to admit I might have feelings for other men,
and I knew that the Student Union had a group for LGBT students but I wouldn’t
go there because I had a negative stereotype of LGBT people and I didn’t think
I was ‘one of them’. I felt ashamed. I had a crush on a classmate, but this time I thought it was a strong
desire to help him through a tough time, to take care of him. I still couldn’t
accept what it really was – I had fallen in love.
Because of my upbringing in an Irish Catholic
family, I thought it wasn’t OK to be gay, that it was ‘unnatural’. Some
Christians and other people of faith believe that all sexual activity outside
marriage and having children is unnatural, and so forbidden, so it’s not just
about homosexuality, though you might not realise that because of all the
attention it gets.
After university I became a primary school teacher,
and I taught in a couple of Catholic schools. I confided in a Catholic priest
who was governor of a school where I worked that I thought I might be attracted
to men. At first, he didn’t say anything, but a few days later he summoned me
to see him, and told me that if it were true 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 was shocked, but I felt unable to
tell anyone else in case they thought he was right.
I left that school and began training to become a priest. Catholic priests make a promise to be celibate (that is, not to marry or have children). 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, and I became depressed. Sometimes I literally wished I didn’t exist. My mum used to say ‘You can tell us anything’ but, in this case, I didn’t believe her.
Then I saw a film called Priest, written by Jimmy McGovern, about a Catholic priest in Liverpool who falls in love with another man. I thought it was beautiful and moving, and it 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 independently to leave the seminaries where we were training for priesthood.
After I left, I decided to tell my parents that I’m
gay. My dad said ‘God still loves you.’ This was the closest he ever came to
saying he loved me. Mum said ‘I won’t tell anyone about your problem.’ I told
her that being gay was not the problem – being unable to talk about it and be
Over time, my parents could see I was happier being
myself. Knowing they accepted me made it easier to accept myself. I felt more
loved, and loveable. When I found a partner they were very welcoming to him.
Together, we found an Anglican church in Liverpool
which welcomed us both and supported us to use our gifts to develop a monthly
Christian service for members of the LGBT community, their family and friends –
more of that later.
In 2012, after four years together, we celebrated our relationship with a civil partnership service. As our faith was important to both of us, 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 most 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, and our story made the news.
Then in 2014 the law changed to allow same-sex couples
to get married not just have a civil partnership, and couples already in a
civil partnership could convert it to marriage [though not in most churches].
We converted our civil partnership to marriage in November 2015 and, although
as an Anglican church it is against the law for couples like us to be married
there, our church community held the most amazing thanksgiving celebration for
I really couldn’t have imagined when I was a teenager that I would be in the first civil partnership to be registered in a place of worship in the UK, having spent ten years leading the UK’s longest running LGBT youth group, and now coordinating a network of ecumenical worship communities for LGBT Christians called Open Table, which began with a group of six people in June 2008 and now gathers in 17 churches across England and Wales, engaging with more than 300 people a month.
Having a positive LGBT role model as a teenager would
have changed my life – but then I wouldn’t have the experience and empathy to
enable me to visit schools like this, and see how much it gets better.
So perhaps my time-travelling dream showed me that I have learned to have compassion for my younger self and be the change I wanted to see in the world.
Positioned in historically disputed territory on the borders of England and Scotland, Rose Castle has witnessed 800 years of conflict and endured centuries of violence at the hands of changing political and religious allegiances. The Foundation’s website says:
We welcome those that have spent their lives back-to-back, turn them face-to-face and help them leave shoulder-to-shoulder by teaching them to disagree well.
In keeping with this vision, the focus of this module was radical hospitality, which our course notes defined as
an ‘inside-out’ journey beginning with hosting ourselves and moving out to consider host-guest dynamics within congregations and communities.
Having already spent the best part of a week in each other’s company during the previous three modules combined, this time we were encouraged to ‘share the everyday’ with one another, including the preparation of meals, worship and other communal activities.
We also had a more flexible programme with ample time for personal reflection – I used much of that to write about my experience of the third module at Corrymeela in the north of Ireland. We also considered what it means to be a reflective practitioner (with which I am familiar, having spent ten years as a youth worker) and were invited to journal about our experiences. My only suggestion in my evaluation of this module was that perhaps we could have adopted journalling from the beginning of the journey to aid our learning.
Coaching – 1-1 guidance for those in positions of responsibility
Training – ‘Open access’ programmes focusing on understanding and engaging in conflict, or programmes tailored to suit a particular faith community or organisation.
There were five stand-out moments which helped me to reflect more deeply on my journey on this pilgrimage, and the insights it is giving me into my role as the Network Co-ordinator of Open Table, an ecumenical Christian worship community which offers a warm welcome to people who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer / Questioning, Intersex, Asexual (LGBTQIA), and all who seek an inclusive Church.
The first was the prayer for hospitality which which we opened and closed our gathering:
We respond to your invitation, O God. As we are, we come. We offer to you the hostilities that shape us, the hostilities we carry, the hostilities that carry us.
In these matters, move us from hostility to hospitality.
Be our guard, for we guard ourselves too much.
Be our protector, that we need not overprotect ourselves.
Create in us a space, a room, a place – free and friendly space where the stranger may be welcomed
– that we may be at home in our own house
– that we may be healed of hurts we carry in the soul
– that we may know brother and sisterhood
– that we may know kindness
– that we may laugh easily
– that we may know beauty.
Nudge, guide, entice, prod. Move us to live within your will.
To the end that within this flesh, within this house in which we live, we may be at home with you, with our neighbour, with ourselves.
Thus we pray, remembering Christ who says, ‘I stand at the door and knock.’ Create in us a place of hospitality. Amen.
The third was an exercise in ‘Life Mapping’ which we were invited to do on the first evening. I have done similar exercises on many occasions and have found creative resources like this helpful, but on this occasion I felt strong resistance – especially to the question on which we were invited to reflect:
How might my gifts and wounds impact on my work to transform conflict?
It was a reasonable question, but that night I could not see beyond my sense of my own woundedness, and so was unable to stay with the reflection. I have come to prefer approaches such as the Examen, which begins with reflecting on an experience of unconditional love, then what I am most grateful for, before coming to what I am least grateful for. Another method I have found helpful is Appreciative Inquiry (AI), which begins by working from strengths and positive experiences to promote resilience, collaboration and open dialogue.
The fourth was a reflection on the role in hospitality with which we most identified:
Being a host
Being a guest
My response to this may be related to the third stand-out moment above: I began by identifying with ‘hosting together’, as that is the role I have fallen into, at home and in church, co-facilitating Open Table Liverpool with my husband and supporting him to host others when we have guests at home. However, when asked to unpack our reasons and motivations, I realised that I really needed to be more ‘at home’ with hosting myself – to make space for my own needs so I can better care for others too.
The fifth was the Evening Entertainment Challenge – Our peer group (a small section of course participants working in similar areas of reconciliation) took the lead on hosting a story-telling session interspersed with songs, poetry, music and magic tricks! Six of us shared true personal stories which, accompanied by other creative expressions of the talent and diversity of the group, made for a very rich, interesting time together. I offered two contributions:
an a capella rendition of one of my favourite songs – The Queen & The Soldier by Suzanne Vega – which is a modern folk ballad portraying a dynamic of non-violent resistance and speaking truth to power. Here is the original (with lyrics):
an adaptation of the story I have shared in schools many times as a volunteer for Diversity Role Models, an educational charity which ‘actively seeks to embed inclusion and empathy in the next generation’ and aims to ‘create safe spaces where young people can explore difference and consider their role in creating a world where we all feel accepted.’ Their student workshops feature LGBT+ or ally role models who speak openly about their lived experiences, building young people’s empathy so they can understand the (often unintended) impact of their language and actions. I incorporated it with another reflection on a dream I had about two years ago, following a positive experience of a visit to a school where most students responded positively to the question ‘Do you think an LGBT student would feel safe coming out in your school?’ Here is the combined story I shared.
This was a particularly significant moment for me as it helped me to appreciate how far I have come since the beginning of module one in Coventry, when we were asked:
What about your story has informed your theology of reconciliation?
Back in January I didn’t know whether this space would feel safe, brave or resilient enough to enable me to share my story with this group. After four months of journeying together through differences, divides and hidden depths, I no longer had any reason to doubt that I could welcome my whole self here and trust that others would do the same.
In 70 countries, loving someone of the same sex is illegal and, in 7 countries, it is punishable by death.
In many more countries citizens are denied their right to live as their true gender identity, and 369 murders of trans and gender-diverse people were reported worldwide in 2018. As well as legal discriminations, social homophobia, biphobia and transphobia daily serve to deny millions of people across the world their basic human dignity.
International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOTB) was created in 2004 to draw the
attention of policymakers, opinion leaders, social movements, the public and
the media to this issue. The date of May 17th was specifically chosen to commemorate
the World Health Organization’s decision in 1990 to declassify homosexuality as
a mental disorder. IDAHOTB is now celebrated in more than 120 countries. LGBTQIA+
organisations, governments, cities, human rights organisations, corporations
and celebrities have all taken action on May 17th to:
Draw media attention to the issue of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia
Demand attention from policymakers and engage in lobbying activities
Network with like-minded organizations and develop new partnerships, at home or beyond.
The theme for IDAHOTB 2019 is ‘Justice and protection for all’. The United Nations Free & Equal campaign has produced this 1 minute film which explains why:
This Sunday evening, 19th May 2019, I am leading a reconciliation service at St Bride’s Liverpool, on behalf of Open Table Liverpool, the first in the Open Table network of ecumenical worship communities for LGBT+ Christians and all who seek an inclusive church.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots which became the catalyst for the LGBT civil rights movement worldwide, I will offer a reflection asking what Peace, Reconciliation & Activism mean for the LGBT+ Christian community today.
Open Table Liverpool meets on the first and third Sundays of each month at St Bride’s Church, Liverpool L8 7LT. Refreshments from 6.00pm, worship from 6.30pm. The first Sunday of the month is a bring-and-share ‘agape’ meal with simple, informal prayer to begin and end the meal. The third Sunday of the month is a communion service, where #AllAreWelcome to #ComeAsYouAre.
Open Table began in 2008 with just six people – now Open Table communities gather across the UK, hosted by inclusive churches, serving more than 300 people each month.
ARE WE spiritual beings having an embodied experience or embodied beings capable of spiritual experience?
This was the question with which I began a recent workshop for trainee spiritual directors on embodiment, gender and sexuality, which I deliver on behalf of the Open Table network of ecumenical worship communities for LGBTQIA+ Christians and all who seek an inclusive church.
I didn’t profess to have the answer – it’s a question that has exercised philosophers and theologians, probably for as long as we’ve been conscious of our identity as humans. The aim of the half-day workshop was to enable those seeking to offer spiritual accompaniment the space to explore what this means to them, so they in turn might create space for others to do the same. I introduced them to resources for reflection on embodiment, gender and sexuality, and how our identity or sense of self may impact on our spirituality.
The 2.5 hour workshop was based on a series of six 1.5 hour sessions I delivered with Terry Biddington, former Chaplain to the Manchester Universities, at St Peter’s House, Manchester, in 2015. These were the themes for each of the six weeks:
Participants on the spiritual directors’ course asked three questions which I felt deserved more reflective answers than I was able to give on the day. I’m sharing them here, with the permission of the course leader, with my responses:
Why is it relevant for an LGBT+ person to ‘come out’ about their gender or sexuality?
I suggest taking a person-centred approach (offering the core conditions of empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard, as discussed in Brian Thorne’s book Infinitely Beloved: The Challenge of Divine Intimacy, 2003). This approach might ask ‘Why does this person need to share this?’ NOT ‘Why is it relevant for me to know this?’ In my experience, good accompaniment can enable people to find their own meaning in life’s circumstances in a way that is more ‘congruent’ (genuine, honest, authentic) than being directed by another, however well-meaning. For example, an LGBT+ person may need to tell me, for example, because they may see me as a representative of a faith community which has previously judged, rejected or otherwise hurt them, so they may feel the need to check if they can trust me with this experience. If they tell me early in my time of supporting them and they feel they can trust me, I am likely to be able to continue to accompany them beyond that moment of self-revelation. If they share this experience and feel I am unable to accept it, they are less likely to build or maintain a relationship of trust with me. If someone comes out to you, I suggest thanking them for trusting you, and asking what it means for them. If you are accompanying someone who ‘comes out’ to you, you may be the first person with whom they have shared it – it is good to support them to reach greater self-acceptance. It may not be helpful to suggest they ‘come out’ to others – for some it will be a good thing, for others it might be irrelevant, premature, or unsafe to do so. Help the individual decide what is best for them – this may include considering peer pressure, either to keep their secret from, or come out to others.
Should I ask a direct question if I think someone is gay?
I recommend open questions which gently and respectfully invite the person to share their experience. If I ask a direct, closed question, it may be unexpected if I haven’t prepared the ground and taken the lead from the other person, or unwelcome if the person is not ready to discuss this or I have made an assumption which is incorrect. For example, drawing on the Genderbread Person resource – a woman may appear more masculine or a man more feminine than their peers: that tells me something about their gender expression (how they present their gender to the world) but it doesn’t necessarily tell me anything about their biological sex, gender identity or sexual orientation (it might, but it would be wrong to assume it). An open question might be ‘What do you look for in a relationship?’ A clue might be the gender they use in the answer – e.g. if they say ‘a person’ rather than a man or woman, or if they use a pronoun for someone of the same gender.
Is it possible for the politics of identity and ‘labels’ to go too far?
Sometimes, yes. To take an extreme example – someone may come to you believing they are a unicorn. The person-centred approach would be to explore what that means to them, which might reveal deeper issues needing care and support, and in time lead them to integrate these into a more mature, holistic and healthy understanding of themselves. The directive approach might tell them unicorns don’t exist, that they only have two legs and no horn, etc. Such responses would more likely close a person down and send them away feeling unheard or misunderstood. Carl Rogers, the founder of the person-centred approach, wrote:
‘The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.’
If we can offer the core conditions of empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard, we can help to create an environment where the person we accompany comes to believe they are loved as they are, and can become the best they can be, with our help and God’s.
At the end of the session I shared a prayer attributed to Fr Mychal Judge, an openly gay celibate Franciscan priest who was chaplain to the New York Fire Department and the first recorded casualty of the World Trade Center attacks on September 11th 2001:
‘Lord, take me where you want me to go, let me meet who you want me to meet, tell me what you want me to say, and keep me out of your way.’
If I am accompanying people, and am tempted to judge or direct them, I find it helpful to pray this to remind me that I am here to be a channel for the love of God, which can overcome the limits of my love.
For more information about Open Table, visit: opentable.lgbt. To explore the possibility of Open Table delivering workshops in your community, click ‘Contact us’ on the Open Table website.