THIS WEEKEND the Bishop of Liverpool, Rt Revd Paul Bayes, will join the celebration 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 a more inclusive Church.
It’s not his first visit to Open Table. We originally invited him to join us as we were inspired by his sermon at his installation in November 2014 about a table made by a poor but generous carpenter:
he offers a place at the table to anyone who wants to sit and eat.
Bishop Paul explicitly mentioned ‘gay and straight’ among those for whose company Jesus longs at this table, to receive his ‘absolute welcome’.
So we asked him to join us for the first time in July 2015 – we hosted two other bishops before this, but this time we were allowed to publicise the visit, during which he presented the Open Table community with 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.’
In return we gave him a lapel pin in the form of a rainbow cross. He also allowed us to record his reflection, in which he 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.’
The publicity around Bishop Paul’s visit to Open Table was one of the catalysts that led to the community spreading beyond Liverpool – one year later there were four Open Table gatherings, now two years on there are ten groups sharing the Open Table vision hosted by three Christian denominations, with plans for at least four more groups to follow, and many more enquiries about sharing our experience.
His first visit appears to have made an impression on him. In November 2015, Bishop Paul mentioned Open Table in a reflection on his first year as bishop of Liverpool at the Anglican National Fresh Expressions Conference held at Southwark Cathedral. As a result of the dialogue we had begun, my husband and I became authorised by the Diocese of Liverpool as Local Missional Leaders to enable the growth of the Open Table community in Liverpool and beyond, which we began in March 2016.
In June 2016 Bishop Paul contributed to Journeys In Grace And Truth: Revisiting Scripture and Sexuality edited by Jayne Ozanne, which was sent to all members of the Church of England’s governing body, General Synod, as they took part in ‘Shared Conversations on Scripture, Mission and Human Sexuality’.* At Bishop Paul’s invitation, we included a brief history of Open Table, which has further contributed to the community’s growth. Bishop Paul explained why he contributed to the book in a radio interview with BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme (starting at 11 minutes), and a video interview with Christian Today:
‘I’m trying to listen to LGBT people in my family and in the wider church, and in the wider world, and as a result of that, I’m going to be bringing to our conversations, in my own words, that we should extend the table.’
The theme of Liverpool Pride in July 2016 was ‘Icons’ – one of our community chose to march carrying a photo of Bishop Paul in recognition of his growing support for our community – she wrote of her experience here.
In October 2016, Bishop Paul wrote the first of three blog posts for Via Media News, Jayne Ozanne’s website set up to continue the dialogue begun by the Journeys In Grace And Truth book. In it he quoted me, or rather me citing a member of the Open Table community, who summed up our community’s core value as:
‘Come as you are. Be as you are. Leave differently.’
It was also an affirmation of the righteous anger of LGBTI people in our churches
Be warmly angry, but do not boil away. Feel what you feel, and turn the feeling to strength. Don’t mourn, organise. Let the person you are in God speak out, so that your own desires and your own anger become the engine for a just world.
In February 2017, Bishop Paul served as a spokesperson for the Church of England’s House of Bishops in response to the news that General Synod voted strongly to reject a report on same-sex relationships and marriage. He also shared his speech to Synod and made a statement to his diocese:
I commit myself to explore to the maximum the freedom under the Church’s current law and guidance to offer rich and meaningful ministry to LGBTI+ people.
On the same evening as Synod rejected the House of Bishops’ report, the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement held an event to mark its merger with Changing Attitude and relaunch as OneBodyOneFaith. At the event, each guest received a free poster – one of the designs was inspired by Bishop Paul’s call to ‘be warmly angry’. This design is now available as a poster, postcard and greeting card from the OneBodyOneFaith shop.
At the Chrism Mass, one of the few occasions when people from across the diocese come together to worship, at Liverpool Cathedral during Holy Week in March 2017, Bishop Paul shared the story of his niece and her civil partner, and their child whom he baptised. He shared how when they moved to a new area the local Anglican church:
‘would not welcome them because they were gay and unashamed, so they went elsewhere.’
In a sermon at the Service of Thanksgiving and Commitment after the OneBodyOneFaith AGM in May 2017, Bishop Paul reflected on the story of Jacob wrestling with God (Genesis 32:24-31), a powerful choice as it echoed one of the most powerful speeches in the debate at General Synod:
‘Simon Butler made a speech of great power and in the middle of it he quoted this phrase of scripture, “I will not let you go unless you bless me”. In saying this he spoke a word for the LGBTI community, a word to the wider church; we’re here to stay, we’re here to speak, to act, to pray, and to love. We will not let you go until you bless us.’
This same story has had a powerful resonance for me in reconciling faith and sexuality, which I have written of here. It was moving to hear Bishop Paul reframe this story and draw on its lessons as the Church continues to wrestle with LGBTI identities:
I encourage you, wrestlers, strugglers, made in the image of God: do not let God go, do not let the church go, until you receive the prize, until you receive the blessing.
In July 2017 Bishop Paul spoke in the debate calling on the Church of England to oppose ‘conversion therapy’ which seeks to change the orientation or identity of LGBTI people and make them conform to heterosexual and cisgender norms, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that such ‘therapy’ is in fact harmful. He began:
As the world listens to us the world needs to hear us say
that LGBTI orientation and identity is not a crime, not a sickness, and not a sin.
I found a recording of his speech on the Youtube channel of Christian Concern, a conservative lobbying group. However, I would not wish to direct any traffic there, so I share it here instead:
He also mentioned that he was ‘privileged and proud to be associated’ with Liverpool Pride, which announced him as a patron of the charity last month.
At the Liverpool Pride festival, he spoke at the muster of the march to more than 8000 people, as you can see here:
Finally he marched with the Open Table group and friends from at least six other churches, more than 70 of us in total. When we marched with his photo in July 2016, we couldn’t have imagined he would be with us in person this year!