A CHRISTIAN community which warmly welcomes Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people, their friends and family, celebrated its seventh anniversary on Sunday 19th July, with the Bishop of Liverpool as their guest.
The inclusive service, known as ‘Open Table’, meets on the third Sunday of each month at St Bride’s Anglican Church on Percy Street in Toxteth, Liverpool.
It began in July 2008 with a small group of less than 10 people. The ministry has grown from strength to strength and now averages 25 attending each month with about 50 regulars who come throughout the year. With support from the team at St Bride’s, a new Open Table service began earlier this month at St John’s United Reformed Church in Warrington, and leaders in Liverpool have also spoken to others including a Methodist church in Hertfordshire and an Anglican group in Canterbury about how to start similar services there.
The name Open Table was chosen because it is a term churches use to describe the practice of welcoming everyone to share in the symbolic meal of bread and wine in memory of Jesus (Holy Communion or Eucharist). Most of the monthly Open Table services are communion services, using gluten-free bread and non-alcoholic wine so all are able to share in one bread and one cup of wine.
Around forty people took part in the anniversary celebration, in which Bishop Paul presented a print of a modern icon called Urban Mission by Yvonne Bell, which shows Jesus in a city among a diverse group of people, framed by the words from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah: “To bring good news to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken, to proclaim liberty to captives, and comfort those who mourn.”
He also charged the community with a mission to give “the love that you share, and the openness that you manifest” as a gift to the wider church, which struggles to receive it:
“God has called you to be people to proclaim his love in a nation and in a church which is moving so quickly in terms of what it thinks and how it acts towards (LGBT people)… that you can have a world where there is legal acceptance and homophobic violence all at once.”
LISTEN to Bishop Paul’s sermon in full here (13 mins 30 seconds):
During the service, people were given brightly coloured stars and asked to record, in a word, phrase or image, what Open Table means to them, including:
“safe space to come as we are”
“unconditional love, total acceptance”
“courage and realness”
“peace and respect”
“joy, integrity and hope”.
After the service, all were invited to share soup and bread, tea and a slice of rainbow cake.
Warren Hartley, the LGBT Ministry Facilitator at St Bride’s, said:
“It has been my privilege to serve as a facilitator of Open Table since the beginning, and I have found it a deeply enriching experience.
“Open Table grew out of a desire to create a safe, affirming and inclusive space for the LGBT community to explore and practice their faith. Many who attend are part of other church communities where they may or may not be able to be open about who they are. For others, Open Table is their only worshipping community. For everyone, it is a space where we can bring these parts of our identities together and worship as whole people.
“My civil partner Kieran has become the co-facilitator for the community and together we now offer house groups and twice yearly retreat days to provide opportunities to deepen our faith together.”
Open Table has also received a grant to produce professional marketing materials, and a website which will be online later this year.
Warren explained the inspiration for inviting Paul Bayes, the Bishop of Liverpool, to lead the anniversary celebrations:
“I was very moved by Bishop Paul’s categorical statement in his inaugural sermon at his installation as bishop in Liverpool Cathedral last November: ‘the welcome is absolute’, and his explicit inclusion of gay people in that welcome. An inclusive statement like that from a bishop is very heart-warming and gives me hope. It can sometimes be very easy to hear only negative voices.”
Bishop Paul said:
“At my inaugural sermon in the diocese I spoke about all being welcomed to Jesus’ table. So I am delighted to be welcomed to this Open Table gathering – a group sharing the journey of LGBT Christians whilst reaching out and listening to the experience of the LGBT community. They are doing important, excellent work to make a bigger difference for a still marginalised group in the church. It is a privilege to be in communion with them.”
LISTEN to Bishop Paul’s inaugural sermon here (23 minutes 30 seconds):
Guy Elsmore, the vicar of St Bride’s Church, said:
“The heart of Christianity is a welcome for everyone, and a celebration of the rich diversity and giftedness of all God’s people. We are delighted to welcome Bishop Paul to St Bride’s, and appreciate his encouragement and challenge to deepen the inclusivity of our church community. Open Table provides an opportunity to reach out to those who are most impacted by homophobia and transphobia in solidarity and understanding.”
Since 2010, Open Table and St Bride’s have also been part of Spectrum of Spirituality, an LGBT interfaith forum. Spectrum hosts an interfaith celebration each year as part of the annual Liverpool Pride festival – the first event of its kind in the UK, as no other Pride festival has an official faith element.
“We join with other faith traditions including Quakers, Unitarians, Pagans, Buddhists, Jews and Muslims to make this happen. This has been an opportunity to give a positive witness to our city of inclusive faith communities.”
Thanks for this encouraging news. I would have loved to join you myself – but the South of Surrey to Liverpool is an awfully long way to travel for Mass, even one as special as this. All the best.