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 – has been a richly rewarding ministry at St Bride’s Liverpool since June 2008.
St Bride’s relaunched in November 2007 with a vision for a ‘creative, progressive, inclusive’ community. Open Table is a Fresh Expression which began shortly afterwards as a commitment to live out the value of inclusion.
St Bride’s congregation had dwindled to five people on a Sunday morning. The new vicar was told to do something new or close the church. He consulted the congregation and local community and three core values emerged: Creative, Progressive, Inclusive
- Creative in worship
- Progressive in thought
- Inclusive of everyone.
It has evolved and is evolving into something fresh and refreshing. Attendance has grown to between 40 and 50 on a Sunday morning. Open Table was one of four experimental ‘worshipping communities’ which began on Sunday evenings in 2008, and it has been the most fruitful. It’s not just Sunday evenings – some Sunday mornings up to a quarter of the congregation would identify as LGBTQIA+. In October 2017 we piloted hosting the Sunday morning service on the fifth Sunday for the first time to integrate Open Table into our wider church community. We will explore doing this on each of the fifth Sundays of the month in 2017.
In May 2008, at the relaunch of a Changing Attitude group in Liverpool, the handful of people who met expressed a desire to start a monthly Communion service. At the first planning meeting, someone said:
‘Will it be “Open Table”?’
When she explained that it means all are welcome, all can come as they are, we felt this was so important because we hear too many stories of people who feared exclusion, or were excluded, from their church community, who felt unheard or unable to express themselves or give their talents. So Open Table was born.
We held the first one at St Bride’s in June 2008 without publicity with a small group of six people. We explored the kind of experience we wanted to create among ourselves for a few months before we launched publicly in September 2008.
The Changing Attitude group was initiated by a clergyperson from elsewhere in the diocese who then withdrew in 2009. The by-product of the original leader’s departure was that Open Table became a grass roots community, not led by clergy but by and for lay LGBT people. This has become one of its strengths.
Clergy from St Bride’s led the services at first – We now have a large group of clergy from across the diocese and beyond to call upon to preside – this has included the Archdeacon of Liverpool, the current and former Bishops of Liverpool and Warrington and the Bishop of Buckingham.
Open Table is a diverse community with a good mix of ages, denominations, genders and sexualities. The clergy are as diverse as the worshippers. As one side of the table is open, we’ve wanted to open the other side of the table as well and have been blessed by welcoming ministers from other traditions as well as Anglicans.
The monthly service has mostly been a Eucharist – Variations include hosting the parish carol service with Liverpool LGBT choir, Taizé style worship, evening prayer or an informal agape meal and ‘breaking of bread’. It usually takes a eucharistic form as that is the origin of the name Open Table.
The ministry has become well known within our diocese. Clergy will signpost or refer, and the diocesan bulletin will now publicise big events. This evolved over time. James Jones, former Bishop of Liverpool, used to meet once a year with a group of LGBT Christians who had come from a disbanded LGCM group. This group supported the Open Table initiative and advised him of the new initiative. He was quietly supportive, giving encouragement and advice regarding governance. He suggested the parish formally endorse the ministry by passing a Parochial Church Council (PCC) resolution that approved it, so if complaints were made, we had a firm foundation upon which to stand. Just before his retirement in 2013 he presided at Open Table, though he was reluctant to let us publicise his presence there except within our own network.
After less than a year in post, our present bishop, Paul Bayes, visited in July 2015, and allowed us to publicise his presence and record and share his reflection. 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.
He has become an outspoken ally – for the past few years he has funded our community stall at the Liverpool Pride festival, then this year he became a patron of the Liverpool Pride charity, gave a speech to more than 8000 people mustering for the march, and walked with around 70 members of Open Table and other affirming congregations.
He asked to come back to Open Table and he joined us again in August to reflect on his experience of sharing the Pride festival with us. He also invited us to help form an LGBTI Reference Group to meet him regularly, similar to the group we used to have with Bishop James.
In March 2016, the Archdeacon of Liverpool commissioned us both as Local Missional Leaders to support and develop ministry among the LGBTQIA+ community.
This includes making a three-year plan for OT Liverpool and empowering other community members to share their gifts for ministry and leadership to make the community more sustainable.
Our primary goal is to explore faith for LGBTQIA+ Christians, and assist one another in integrating our spiritual and sexual or gender identities, as for some these have been in direct conflict. We also welcome and affirm family members, friends and all who also seek an inclusive church. We do this by creating safe sacred space, with a real sense of God’s presence, where we can bring all of ourselves to God and to each other, where we can invite everyone without exception to ‘come as you are’. The inspiration for this phrase, which has become our motto as you can see fro the Open Table logo above, came from a beautiful hymn written by Deirdre Brown, an Australian nun, which has become our theme song: ‘Come as you are, that’s how I love you.’
We have achieved this safe sacred space through exploring liturgy, carefully choosing resources and constructing services that affirm the goodness of creation, the dignity of all people and our identity as children of God. We adopted and adapt the formal structure of the communion service as it is familiar to most Christians across different traditions. One tradition we borrowed from St Bride’s is a time of open prayers of intercession, where anyone can speak and light a candle. For a community whose voices are seldom heard, this has been empowering and moving.
We strive for consistency – we’re there every month at the same time and venue. In nine years we have never cancelled a gathering. We’ve celebrated Inclusive Church Sunday each year since 2013. We also mark the ‘high days’ of the LGBTQIA calendar including LGBT History Month in February, IDAHOT day in May, Liverpool Pride in July/August, Bi Visibility Day in September, National Coming Out Day and Asexuality Awareness Week in October, Transgender Day of Remembrance in November and World AIDS Day in December. We’re seeking to develop liturgies to celebrate rites of passage for our community, such as affirmation of gender identity and coming out.
Open Table has been a rich blessing to us, our church and our community. It’s helping to break down stereotypes of the LGBT+ community within the church and of church within the LGBT+ community, so much so that this year we’re hosting the city’s secular vigil for World AIDS Day.
The monthly service allows people to be members both of Open Table and another worshipping community. Some have felt that the monthly service is not really enough to grow a community deeply. Over time, regulars expressed a desire to get to know each other beyond the limits of a monthly service. This led to the invitation to re-gather, after post-service refreshments, for a ‘sharing circle’. We introduce this as a time for holding one another in prayerful attention; not a therapy or discussion group, but rather an opportunity for deep and respectful listening to any who wish to share what is going on in their lives and spiritual journeys. If anyone wants to respond to anything shared during this time, we invite them to reach out outside the sharing circle. This is well received, attracting up to 16 people each time. We have also offered pastoral visits, quiet days, a weekend retreat and house groups, including a Lent course using the Inclusive Church Living Christianity resource. In July 2016 we began gathering twice monthly – on the first Sunday for a bring and share agape meal, and the third Sunday for our communion service.
Good safeguarding practice is essential due to the level of vulnerability we see in adults of all ages with additional needs, from learning difficulties to mental health diagnoses, disputed asylum claims and people in rehabilitation following imprisonment for a sexual offence. The more we have offered opportunities to go deeper, the more we see the need for it. Where we lack the capacity to do this, wesignpost to other resources e.g. St Beuno’s, Holland House and the Corrymeela Community, which offer LGBT affirming retreats. We also put people in touch with our own parish clergy and others trained in pastoral care and spiritual accompaniment.
We can’t register civil partnerships and marriages at St Bride’s – as Anglican churches are prohibited in English law – but we want to do what we can within the current law with integrity, and promote our openness to hosting services of thanksgiving after a civil ceremony. The impact of becoming an inclusive congregation on the marriage ministry at St Bride’s was extraordinary. Within four years, the number of wedding bookings was up by 300%. When bookings were made, the vicar heard couples say variations on the following –
‘we wanted to come to an inclusive church for our wedding – several of our guests are in same sex relationships and we wanted to be in a church where they would feel affirmed too.’
Our Rector reflected that
‘rather than taking away from traditional marriage, being inclusive of the LGBT+ community has added something to it.’
Meanwhile other churches lead the way – the URC communities which host Open Table now have the freedom to marry same-sex couples on their premises if their eldership approves this.
Our hope for Open Table is that we can be a place where LGBTQIA people and others can meet God, the source of life, love and being, and thus come to know that they are beloved children of God. Through that encounter, we ourselves are transformed, and become agents of transformation in an imperfect world. As LGBTQIA people, 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.
For the first four years, the Open Table community in Liverpool was attended by fewer than 20 people most months (see graph below). There was always someone present – the gaps in data appear when attendance was not recorded. Then in 2013 we had our first peak at 30 which began an upward trend with the Christmas carol services showing the highest peaks of 80 in 2014 and 150 in 2016 (December 2015 was not recorded). Other peaks include 42 for our vigil for the victims of the Orlando shooting in June 2016, and 62 for Bishop Paul’s second visit in August 2017.
Growth in and beyond Liverpool
Until 2015 there was just us in Liverpool, though we had contact with groups of similar intentions in Manchester, Hertfordshire and Canterbury. In 2015 we began talking to three other communities about sharing the Open Table name and ethos – first a URC church in Warrington, then the LGBT service known as Communion in Manchester relaunched as Open Table in a high Anglican church in Manchester, then an ecumenical group began meeting at a Roman Catholic convent in north Wales, before coming under the care of the Church in Wales Diocese of St Asaph’s new LGBTQIA Chaplain and relaunching this year in three churches across her diocese. OT North Wales is now extending into the Diocese of Bangor, which has also appointed an LGBT Chaplain.
In July 2016 we had an ‘Appreciating Open Table’ day in Warrington with representatives of these communities, with a view to producing a statement of the shared vision and values of Open Table to which all current and emerging regional groups could subscribe and display (like the Inclusive Church statement of belief), so that each Open Table worshipping community, though in diverse host churches and locations, may share some core values and intentions so people know that each and every OT community is a safe sacred place where all are free to ‘come as you are’ – we also launched our new logo in time for Liverpool Pride in 2016 with this phrase as our invitation and slogan.
In October 2017 we did an audit of the growth of the Open Table network – there are now 11 active OT communities. In addition to the four mentioned, there’s another URC church in St Helen’s, two Anglican churches working together in Wigan, a High Anglican Church in North London and a Baptist worship centre in Stoke, plus an Anglican led community centre in Houghton-le-Spring in the diocese of Durham, which launched in March during the Archbishop of York’s annual ‘Talking Jesus’ mission, with 45 people attending and the Bishop of Jarrow leading the celebration. Another Anglican Church in Sefton launched in June, and the founder of Warrington founded OT Isle of Man at another URC church in September.
The number of churches contacting us about offering this kind of ministry is also increasing significantly. In addition to the 11 active communities, we’ve had contact with more than 40 other churches – most of those have made first contact just this year! The debate on marriage and same-sex relationships at the Church of England’s General Synod in February 2017 appears to have been a catalyst.
A couple of these churches have done their own thing under another name, some are still discerning what’s right for their community, and some are raring to go and can’t wait for us to catch up, like the one which advertised in the OneBodyOneFaith forum on Facebook that they were launching an Open Table and using the logo, though we’d not heard from them before. We’ve now begun a conversation about how we can support them in future.
Requirements & Recommendations
Each Open Table community is independent – we offer support, encouragement and learning from our experience. To be an Open Table community, we would require you to:
- come and see what we do at our monthly gatherings in Liverpool. If there is one nearer to you, you’d be welcome to visit one of the other Open Table communities – you can find the full list on our webpage: opentable.lgbt.
- take it to your church leadership to pass a resolution to ensure support, safeguarding and accountability
- Ensure that your OT is a worshipping community with a Eucharistic heart, hence the name – Open Table = open communion for all. Other activities are encouraged, as long as the main regular activity has this focus e.g. a communion service or agape meal.
- enable LGBTQIA people to be heard, to contribute, to serve one another in a community of integrity and equity in the planning and practice of worship and other activities.
We also recommend that a church seeking to host an Open Table community:
- becomes a member of Inclusive Church if it is not a member already – here’s how.
- registers with OneBodyOneFaith’s ‘Get Visible’ campaign – here’s how.
- signs the Open Church Charter and becomes part of the Oasis Charitable Trust’s Open Church Network– here’s how.
- 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+) and all who seek an inclusive church
- a world where LGBTQIA+ people are fully included within our church traditions and communities.
- Safe – with support, accountability and safeguarding training for those who lead it
- Sacred – meeting God and each other on holy ground through heartfelt liturgy and music
- Sacramental – worship with a Eucharistic heart
- Sustainable – consistent, for the long term (where possible) and committed to sharing learning for the good of the network
- Space – welcoming, inclusive, accessible (physically and spiritually)
Watch our new short film to inspire people considering whether to offer this ministry in their community, called ‘Will it be Open Table?’ You can watch it here (3 minutes including subtitles – don’t forget to switch them on if you need them):