LAST WEEKEND 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 – took part in a day conference called Gathering Voices – From Welcome to Affirmation. As part of that event I hosted a workshop called ‘Will it be open table? Creating safe sacred spaces for LGBT+ Christians’, in which I shared a little of the community’s history, mission, vision and values. We showed this short film explaining how Open Table began in Liverpool in 2008:
and Jen Williams, founder of the Open Table community in Sefton, Merseyside, in 2017, gave this reflection on what Open Table means to her, and what she’s learned from setting up a community:
Open Table has helped me in my personal journey to recovery – I came to know about Open Table through a mental health chaplain, and I plucked up the courage to go along to my first Open Table service in May 2015. I have bipolar disorder, and was recovering from an episode of mental illness at the time. Throughout much of this episode which had put me in hospital, I was wrestling with trying to reconcile my sexuality and a new found Christian faith, and I was really struggling. Open Table was (and still is) a safe space. It continually gives me an opportunity to come to God unhindered by the worry that I am not worthy, that I am not meant to be there, that who I am is wrong. Instead, I am able to fully express myself and embrace who I am before God in worship; I can explore my faith and my sexuality safely, with people who are able to really hear and to really listen. Often we are able to empathise with each other having shared similar experiences and struggles.
Open Table is a place where I can bring my family – When I was coming to my first Open Table service, I brought my mum. The tagline of Open Table events has always been ‘for the LGBTQIA+ community, family & friends’. There is wonderful significance in this invitation – Open Table is a comfortable space to introduce family to the LGBTQIA+ community.
Open Table is a diverse community – Open Table is for all ages; it is ecumenical, so you have the benefit of understanding different traditions and different styles of worship; it is fully inclusive of all, and all are made to feel welcome. I have found the diversity deeply enriching.
Open Table has allowed me to develop deep connections and meaningful friendships. It has been a place of opportunity, community, hospitality and spiritual growth.
I felt moved to start my own because…
I was meeting a lot of people who lived five minutes away from me, and it seemed to me that a lot of LGBTQIA+ community events were always happening in Liverpool city centre, and that there was very little going on in the neighbouring borough of Sefton. I have a supportive church and I wanted to recognise our church as an inclusive space.
It took time…
I had an idea in July 2016 that I’d like something to happen in Sefton, and had a sit down talk with my vicar. After that I wrote a letter proposing the development of an Open Table group at church which was put to the PCC in September 2016. Also in September 2016, the PCC went on an away-day in which they explored the theology of sexuality/queer theology. The PCC unanimously backed the proposal. It was crucial that the PCC were involved and that it was carefully put forward and considered, as Open Table should become a foundational point of the church, rather than something on the fringe of it. In all, the process of starting an Open Table at my church was eleven months from the idea to the official start date on the 11th June 2017.
Other important things to note…
Becoming an inclusive church – The church became an inclusive church as part of the Inclusive Church network before Open Table Sefton started – this ensures that churches are seen on the list of inclusive churches, and allows people to explicitly know about the efforts being made to ensure they are welcome.
Get an idea of what Open Table is and how it might run, before you start your own, by attending an Open Table service – It’s important to learn from more established groups and to see how the group is run before you consider how it might run in your church.
Don’t run Open Table on your own! Ensure you have a team… I haven’t got this right yet, and I am realising that much of my congregation have gifts that I haven’t used yet, and I am putting that in place. Ensure if you can when you start that you have a ministry team that prays together and supports each other.
Each Open Table is unique, and each service is different… It is important that you work within your own context and plan something that works for your community. Open Table Sefton meets informally for refreshments in the church hall before moving into the church for a simple Communion service based on liturgy from Iona. Each Open Table service shares the same values but how they are expressed depends on the church and community which hosts them.
Don’t assume people who aren’t LGBTQIA+ won’t be interested… A lot of people are interested in Open Table for reasons other than sexuality or gender identity; it can be the fact that it is an evening service (if yours is in the evening), it can be the fact that it’s an open and inclusive space, or that you do communion, or the service in a different and unique way to what they have been used to. Make sure to invite everyone at your church!